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

Monday, 18 September 2017

Watching for the kingfisher

One of several signs in the Trap Grounds
The Trap Grounds kingfishers are renowned enough to have an entire nearby mural dedicated to them, in spite of their somewhat reclusive nature and rare appearances. They are also - despite their brilliant plumage - masters of camouflage. Sometimes I've caught the briefest glimpse of bright orange and blue, only for it to disappear, within a second, into the surrounding foliage, leaving me staring intently and with receding hope of a reappearance, wondering how such glaring, vivid colours can merge so successfully into greenness. I've never yet been privileged with a sighting of a kingfisher contentedly on his perch or diving for fish; but then, I've never spent hours waiting and winning his trust and favour. But there was one evening, a month or so ago, when I was blessed with a triple sighting; one evening when I'd had a rough day, and, feeling disgruntled, had decided that a quick walk in the evening sun might do me good.

I wandered by Swan Pond, reflecting that the swans - creatures of habit - were unlikely to be there at this time, and all I'd see would be coots and moorhens. And then, as I approached, I saw it... that flash of iridescent blue, flying towards the overhanging willow from which - I suddenly remembered - others had seen the kingfisher dive. A surge of joy and lightness coursed through me, even as I stood immobile, focussed on the branches into which he had disappeared. How could such beatitude be possible, in the midst of my now dispelling grumpiness?

And then, several minutes later, bright blue wings circled the tree and vanished into the greenery, seemingly changing colour in the process. In the space of those few minutes I'd seen more kingfisher than in the previous six months! I continued on my walk, my spirit lifted, just as the pictured sign promises. On my way back, on a whim, I headed back towards Swan Pond... arriving just in time to see radiant blue wings, launching themselves and skimming low over the reed beds, flying into the distance. Three times in something like thirty minutes!

Of course, the kingfisher wasn't there the following evening, or the evening after, or indeed any day or evening since. And why should he be? He has his own life to lead, his own needs to respond to; my desire to gaze at him and take photos and be able to say I've seen him dive for fish isn't his prime concern. And as I come to the end of my time here in Oxford I know I'm unlikely to have that joy; but I also know that seeing the kingfisher isn't my only reason for visiting the Trap Grounds. Nevertheless, I stop by the bird hide, Swan Pond and elsewhere; stop and watch and wait. And I recall a poem by Ann Lewin, and ponder the precision of her analogy.

Prayer is like watching for the
Kingfisher. All you can do is
Be where he is likely to appear, and
Often, nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
No visible sign, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But sometimes, when you’ve almost
Stopped expecting it, a flash of brightness
Gives encouragement.

Yes, there is a rightness to this analogy, but there is also a fundamental difference. Seeing or not seeing do not matter - have never mattered. The rare brightness is lovely to behold and to experience, but it is not the reason why I pray. I pray simply to spend time with God, not to wait for spirit-lifting sightings, gratuitously lovely though they are. Even without them, I know God's presence and God's love: it is within and around, in the small, dull and colourless as much as in the iridescent; in the often overlooked and ordinary, as much as in the more dazzling and breathtaking. My knowledge is not that God has been there and may come again, but that he is here, and always will be. This is my encouragement, my joy; and for this I feel immense gratitude.

Mural under the Frenchay Road bridge, Oxford canal
(by the entrance to the Trap Grounds)

Friday, 15 September 2017

Trees have a way

Spring may well be the season of new life, but early autumn - just as nature prepares for hibernation or death - is when so many new beginnings take place. September is when we start school, university and so many courses and programmes; and, often, it's when people enter religious life, and when communities form and re-form after the summer. And for me, this September is a time for packing - and its concomitant sorting and shedding - and discovering along the way how, in only two years and despite my best intentions, I have managed to accumulate so many bits and pieces. It's also a time for goodbyes, and for many "last times", and for gathering memories as I let go of places and possessions. It's a time of "sweet sorrow", of looking back even as I look ahead, and prepare for new beginnings in a newly-formed community.

The first autumn leaf appeared on my doorstep yesterday: crimson-tinged gold gently infused with pale green; apple colours reminiscent of this season's fruits, and a first herald of autumn's impending loveliness, and its gradual, inevitable shedding. And I was transported back to a retreat I made several years ago, when I was given a poem about autumn written by one of our sisters, which spoke, powerfully, to what was happening within me at the time. When I later told April I had prayed with her poem she was delighted, and told me that she had written it as she was preparing to move to a new community: from friendships, countryside and all that was familiar, to so much that was new and unknown; from a place where she had grown and experienced God, to finding (or maybe not) new burning bushes and places of encounter.

April later gave me permission to use her poetry on our Province website, and I'm sure she'd be delighted to see me use it here. Maybe this poem will speak powerfully to someone else's need, as it did for me six years ago, and does again now...

Trees have a way
of teaching us the deepest things.
Seasonally, quietly, they demonstrate their truths.

Watch them endure,
bow down, give way, accept
when from the North ice-laden winds oppress.

And then release
what they with year-long love watched slowly grow,
when at the summer’s end green leaves turn sere.

The darkest times
these are, watching green hope’s fulfilment drift away
when all the best they strove for, they renounce.

But then, trees say,
Think of that rare delight when buds, in spring, define
On desiccated boughs their glory once again.

Written in 1968 by April O'Leary RSCJ (1922 - 2013)

Sunday, 10 September 2017

I have chosen you

On Thursday twelve RSCJ from around the world began probation - a group programme of preparation for perpetual vows, lasting almost five months. In her opening conference our Superior General invited the group to hear anew and reflect on Jesus saying to them: I have chosen you. She told them:

Each one of you will discover again during these months what God’s choice to call you to the Society of the Sacred Heart means in your life now. God did not choose you to be a hermit, or to live in a monastery, or to be in relationship with only one person in marriage or a partnership, or to live blessed singleness.

God chose you to be a woman of his Heart, a Religious of the Sacred Heart who lives her call within a community of women, all of whom commit themselves to live the charism of Sophie to “discover and make known the love of the Heart of Jesus”. My prayer is that you will help each other live this call of love.

And indeed, we are, each one of us, chosen and called to a particular way of life, for a specific purpose. The call to religious life, for example, carries within it calls within calls, layers which we uncover over time and in different ways and places, finding new depths and meaning. And probation, with the intensity of its focus plus the full Spiritual Exercises, is one such place, allowing time and space in which to hear God say this is what I have chosen you for, and explore what this might mean for us as individuals and community. This was certainly my experience, and as I read these words I was reminded of God's choice and call, heard especially during my long retreat and summed up in the refrain to the psalm at our profession: Yo te he elegido para amar... I have chosen you for love...

But then, re-reading those words, it occurred to me that they are also what we say to God. I have chosen You, we effectively say, publicly and emphatically when we enter or make vows: I have chosen You, and I do choose You, as the One who is more for me than wealth, autonomy or creating a family. And it is what we can also say, daily, unconsciously, in smaller, often hidden ways, sometimes noticed and costly, but at others increasingly second nature: I choose You... when I let go of something cherished... when I prioritise more time for prayer... when I make an effort to be (and not just talk about being) generous or selfless... when I opt for the common good... when I allow grace to work in me...

I have chosen you, says God, time and again, whispered or with insistence... and I choose You, we are invited to echo in reply...

Thursday, 7 September 2017

A constant reminder

Just over a week ago I came across a blog, started by a Jesuit novice to recount his pilgrimage experience. More recently, he wrote daily posts as he prepared for his first vows, which he made last Saturday. Last Friday's post was about the crucifix presented to each Jesuit as he makes vows, and which will accompany him for the rest of his life.

Reading this reflection led me to ponder on the things RSCJ receive at different stages of incorporation and commitment. Often there is something to wear: a Society emblem, or our medal at the beginning, and at final profession, a ring and cross; visible signs and symbols of our belonging and of our vowed commitment. We receive the Constitutions when we enter the novitiate and embark upon an intense study of them, and re-receive them at first vows, that they may be our spirit and guiding light.

And we also receive a crucifix at first vows. This lives in our bedrooms, maybe in a prayer space or hanging on a wall. Many older sisters still keep to the tradition of placing their crucifix on their bed each morning: a brief reminder, a way of "touching base", at the beginning and end of each day, with the One to whom they have pledged their lives, for Whom they will live - or have spent - that day.

Traditionally, crucifixes are passed down the generations, but sometime before I entered novices preparing for vows were given the option of choosing something different. For a while I considered "receiving" a crucifix I had already owned for several years, as this would add to its significance for me. But then, as I started putting together my liturgy, I stopped and read the prayer of blessing which would be said over the crucifix before the Provincial gave it to me:

Gracious and loving God, we who accept your covenant of love must be ready, as Jesus was, to lay down our lives for love. We find in Him whose Heart was pierced, the example and strength to respond in total love.

Bless this cross, saving God, that it may be for Silvana a constant reminder of the price that must be paid for love. May she grow in the image of your Son, surrendering herself joyfully to you as he did.

And that's when I knew which crucifix I wanted to receive. I'd seen it on sale several weeks before, in a Celtic shop: a replica of an Irish penal cross, small and compact enough to be easily hidden by people who, in the face of savage persecution, knew only too well what it meant to pay the price for love. And that is what my crucifix has been for me: an unprepossessing, somewhat stark but constant reminder of the price of love, whether paid in persecution or in generous sacrifice; and a reminder, too, of my vocation as an RSCJ, to give my life for love, often in ordinary, unappealing, quotidian ways.

And today, re-reading that blessing after all these years, I'm struck, as if anew, by the final sentence: May she grow in the image of your Son, surrendering herself joyfully to you as he did; I notice, especially, Jesus' attitude of surrender and abandonment in his upraised arms, and I'm reminded that upraised arms can also signify joy and triumph and exuberance. So now, almost twenty-one years after receiving it, this crucifix will be a new constant reminder - of the joyfully surrendered, totally loving image of Jesus, in which I daily pray to grow...

Monday, 4 September 2017

When the sea comes calling...

I've just spent an unexpectedly warm and sunny weekend in a relatively quiet, small seaside town. This final weekend before schools start again meant the beaches, stretching for miles, were barely half-full, so there was plenty of space for games and kite-flying, and for children and adults to splash and run around in the waves. And plenty of evidence, too, of traditional beach pastimes: a long trench being dug for the gradually advancing tide, and, along the shore, where the surface was smooth and damply soft, names and hearts and other signs etched into the sand. Transient, temporary greetings and declarations of love, to be smoothed and washed away within a few hours by the subtly yet inexorably encroaching tide.

I watched a carefully constructed, moated sandcastle begin its slow surrender to the waves, and as I did, I recalled a poem by Carol Bialock RSCJ. I'd first heard it in 1994, at the first vows of a young sister for whom it had been significant. It speaks of God's journey into our lives, not with polite, restrained reticence, but with an insistent power which offers love; and it speaks of yielding and acquiescence, and of learning a new way of being. When God - or the sea - comes calling, you give your house for a coral castle, and learn to breathe underwater...

And today, as I watched the sandcastle softly, gracefully crumble into the sea, and hearts and names fade and disappear, I also noticed something else. Each receding wave left something behind. Dozens of pebbles of all shapes and hues, the odd feather or piece of glass where previously there had been only sand; not quite a coral castle, true, but the sea's offering, nonetheless. When the sea comes calling it takes away, yes; but the sea - palely mirroring God - also gives: not like for like, measured out, but more, and abundantly, from the vastness and variety of its bounty.

When God comes calling, may we have the grace of acquiescence, and gladly give our precious, beautifully-built sandcastles for the hundredfold contained within a coral one...

By Carol Bialock ~
I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you,
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbours.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences,
respectful, keeping our distance
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always the fence of sand our barrier,
always the sand between.
And then one day
(and I still don't know how it happened)
The sea came.
Without warning.
Without welcome even.
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight, and I thought of drowning, and I thought of death.
But while I thought, the sea crept higher till it reached my door.
And I knew that there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly from a distance neighbours.
And you give your house for a coral castle
And you learn to breathe under water.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Blessed are the restless

Yesterday being the Feast of St Augustine, some of his best-known words appeared several times in my social media feeds. And of course, this included You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

And I have known the truth of that statement. In my mid-twenties and far from God I experienced a deep restlessness, a search for "more", without knowing this "more" was in fact God. The quest, at times urgent, driven, insistent, eventually brought me into God's Heart; and in here there was deep peace, rest and quietude. This, after all, was the seeking Pope Francis spoke of a few years ago, as the courage of a restless heart: the search for God means having the courage to set out on a risky path, it means following our restless hearts... You need a certain restlessness to set out on this path, the same restlessness that God placed in each of our hearts and that brings us forward in search of him.

In that finding there was quietude, oh yes, and yet... in a way, the restlessness doesn't end here; it cannot. Finding God, coming to dwell in God, is merely the end of one, initial quest and the beginning of another, deeper, still quietly insistent one. As Augustine wrote elsewhere in his Confessions: I have tasted you; now I hunger and thirst for more. Our initial, aching, longing, restless hunger has been satisfied, only to be replaced by a new one.

Thinking of this, I remembered a sister I lived with for several years, who died last year. She was an incredibly restless woman: not because she hadn't found God, but because she had - and the God she had found filled her with passion and zeal and the unending desire to give more; to be more, to do more. She didn't have a comfort zone, because that would have implied being comfortable, and this she could never be, not in a world filled with pain and injustice. This was also the restless passion which drove St Philippine Duchesne (who, I've just been reminded, was born on this day 248 years ago), and so many others, throughout the centuries, in living the truth once expressed by Edith Stein: The deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must "go out of oneself"; that is, one must go out to the world in order to carry the divine life into it. 

So yes, once found, our hearts will rest in God; and there is beatitude in this, and fulfillment and deep, peaceful joy. But they also should not rest: they should continue to search, continue to hunger, continue to want to give and to be more, for God and the world; and in this there is an even greater blessedness, and, unfathomably, an even deeper fulfillment. 

Blessed are the restless, because this is what will lead them into the deepest depths of God, in and for the world. 

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Fidelity and fallibility

Speaking about today's Gospel, in which Simon Peter is given his new identity and mission (Matthew 16: 13-20), our homilist referred to the fact that the Gospels were definitely not written by spin doctors for the new Christian community's emerging leadership. Peter is stout-hearted, dependable and devoted, yes, but also rash, impetuous and utterly fallible. The Gospels diverge in many areas, with some events only appearing in one or two accounts - and even then, details might differ; but Peter's threefold denial of Jesus is recounted, with immense precision, in all four.

And yet... God, in his mysterious and unfathomable wisdom chose Peter - just as, with equally wise mystery, he chooses and calls each of us...

And as I listened to this homily it struck me that Peter's denials and fallibility are not the point. The important thing isn't Peter's weakness but God's strength; not Peter's disloyalty, but Jesus' steadfast love and fidelity. If the evangelists recount Peter's limitations it's because the Good News is about Jesus, and the power and extravagance of his redemptive, forgiving love, even - especially - for those we might call undeserving. Thus Peter's limitations - like ours - can become the means through which God's transforming grace can work and be revealed, if we will only allow it.

I then found myself remembering a sentence from our 1970 General Chapter. It's from the section on union and conformity with the Heart of Jesus, in a paragraph which speaks of contemplating his Heart in the heart of the world. Although these words are about Christ's presence in the world in general, they could also be applied to an individual, with all their gifts and limitations: It is in this very humanity whose fear and loneliness and love he shared that his GLORY must shine forth. 

May we become people whose fears and fallibility, as much as our generosity and goodness, allow Jesus' glory and Good News to shine forth...