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

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Surprised by spring

Thus far, it's been a strange, topsy-turvey, stop-start sort of spring. A relatively mild February ended in the grip of raw, bitter cold, and a country transformed - and transfixed - by snow. By the end of the first week of March, though, temperatures began to pick up, and slowly climbed to something resembling normal. Last Friday we basked in strong, wintry sunshine, and people sat outdoors drinking tea; on Saturday we awoke to snow and a penetrating, icy cold. A few days later, and the vernal equinox - officially the first day of spring - was filled with the sort of sunshine which makes the day feel infinitely warmer - as long as you walk on the sunny side of the road. It's still only March, still early spring, and so this is a sunshine which only warms where it lands.

And throughout this time Lent has - as always - run away with itself. In the midst of my annual disbelief that it's already five weeks since Ash Wednesday, the shrouded statues of Passiontide remind me that Holy Week is just around the corner. As ever, I wonder what has happened to some of my Lenten plans and ideals: alas, the limoncello-making seems to have survived the best - though even with that, I haven't shaken it as often as I should have! This stop-start spring has certainly contained a stop-start Lent.

Meanwhile, in snow and frost, sunshine, rain, dull days and bright alike, flowers have been blooming, there's a greening to trees, and a suddenness of pink-white blossom. Some sheltered camellias in our road clearly sniffed the spring long before the rest of us, and were already in full bloom in February, flaunting their loveliness before the less flamboyant, more seasonal primroses and daffodils. Somehow, they managed to withstand the frost's scorching; since then, unperturbed, their buds have continued to open, their beauty unaffected by icy blasts.

I was surprised when I first saw them, though I shouldn't have been, as I remember noticing them last year, flowering at the same time, and evoking the same response. But the surprise persists, as it does each time I first catch sight of the blossom. And really, that's part of the delight of spring: even though it's a recurrent part of earth's cycle, its annual advent heralded by snowdrops and daffodils and lengthening days, spring still manages to catch us unawares, astonishing us with its manifold gifts of new life. Long may I continue to be so delightedly surprised.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Inside out

Living the encounter with Jesus means allowing yourself to be turned inside out by Grace every day 

When I saw these words, tweeted by Pope Francis a few days ago, my first thought was to add - yes, and upside down too! I remembered that this was how someone once described the effect on her of doing the Ignatian Exercises - an interior graced upheaval which changed so much of her life. It's an experience with which many of us can certainly resonate, whether in a retreat or simply being surprised in what was otherwise mundane.

Out of curiosity, I checked the Spanish and Italian versions of this tweet, as I assume one of these was the original language in which it was written. The Spanish referred to la cotidiana agitacion de la gracia - the daily agitation of grace, while the Italian was even stronger: here grace's daily effect was scompiglio - disarray. There's no subtlety here, no gentle infusion of grace - or rather, the infusion might be gentle, but its effects are anything but! Grace is a powerful force, an eruption into our lives which can truly shake us up and throw all our plans and ambitions into disarray.

But the English translator chose to be turned inside out...  words which immediately conjure up messy threads and rough stitching; innards we only inadvertently display. And it is grace which turns all this into beauty. When we allow grace to grow and work in us it might well be an interior process, but its effects become outwardly evident. We are indeed turned inside out, so that what is within, in our hearts, is not only revealed, but pours out. Faith becomes evident and love becomes selfless action, and the quiet joy of our transforming encounter with Jesus radiates.

And yes, in the process we are shaken, stirred up and disarrayed... but shouldn't every encounter with Jesus leave us living from the inside out?

Thursday, 8 March 2018

International women of the Heart

Fifteen years ago I celebrated International Women's Day as part of an incredibly international community of RSCJ. There were twelve of us together in Rome, preparing for our perpetual vows: add the formation team and translator and we were fifteen in all, from fourteen different countries and every continent. Between us we had grown up speaking at least eight first languages and as many if not more second and third ones, and brought with us a diversity of cultures and mentalities, of spiritualities and national identities.

We were amazingly diverse, but also as one. United in our common vocation and sisterhood, and our deepening love for one another, we overcame differences and difficulties in communication, to live our Society's motto of Cor Unum et Anima Una in Corde Jesu - One heart and one mind in the Heart of Jesus.

This has not been my only experience of living in international community, but it has certainly been my strongest and most diverse. In the Society of the Sacred Heart, every day is a day filled with international women: with their strength and vulnerability, their courage and resilience, their tenderness and tears, their passion and energy for mission, and for making our world a more just and loving place.

So today is a good day for reminding myself of these words from a recent formation document - Life Unfolding: Offering the gift. 

At this crucial point of history, Jesus is still calling us to be “Women of the Heart”, giving us the possibility of listening once more to God’s dream for humanity, which moves us to make each action of our lives brim over with love. In community we wish to give each other mutual support in the certainty that the dream can be fulfilled.

May I - may we all, wherever in the world we may be - become more truly women of the Heart, brimming over with love, consciously playing our part in fulfilling God's dream for humanity...

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Continuity in a cross

When I was asked to write a reflection for the Society's Year of Prayer in honour of Philippine Duchesne, I chose to focus on her profession cross. This cross - subsequently worn by Anna du Rousier, and later by Janet Stuart - had spent some time in our province during the Janet Stuart centenary events in 2014, inspiring us with its simple presence, which told of the great-hearted, God-centred women who had worn it.

The pre-Vatican II crosses were larger and more ornate than the ones we receive now, as was evident when I placed mine beside Philippine's. The effect was akin to placing a tortoiseshell cat beside a tiger: a disparity in size and effect, but at depth a striking similarity; they are, fundamentally, of the same genus and substance, the same evolutionary trait. The same insignia and mottos bind our crosses - bind all our crosses, across the centuries - and bear witness to the enduring continuity of a vocation and vowed commitment which are, at heart, completely the same, however differently they might be expressed two hundred years later.

This continuity was picked up by some of the RSCJ who wrote to me after my reflection was published, and whose words have nourished my ongoing pondering. One wrote that her own cross had originally been worn by a sister she had never met, but whose life, she knew, had been spent in contemplation and largely hidden service. My cross is also inherited, although I knew its former wearer, of whom I was very fond: when "her" cross became "mine", I like to think that something of her fidelity, deep prayer, perseverance and indomitable spirit came with it, along with her amusement at life - and, yes, her flaws too, all part of her steadfast commitment, lived in faith.

But I was also reminded of something else, which I'd only heard about recently, in passing. Apparently, a lot of the old, pre-Vatican II crosses, instead of being left to languish in boxes, were sent to our generalate in Rome, where they have been melted down and formed into "new" crosses. Thus, anyone receiving a shiny, gleaming new cross receives, in reality, something much older and more precious, in which are intermingled the crosses of missionaries and stay-at-homes, of unsung mystics and anonymous administrators, of revered teachers and reverend mothers, and nurses and cooks and sacristans. But more than this: contained within those new crosses are the prayer, suffering, struggle, fidelity and generosity of a multitude of women, who, across two centuries, gave their lives for the greater glory of the Heart of Jesus, and the revelation of his limitless love. A continuity of call we all share, whatever the age, size and provenance of our cross.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Of the heart on a loop

As I am Facebook friends with RSCJ who post in languages I don't understand, I regularly use Facebook's translation tool. As with any online translator, it is far from an exact science, and the results are invariably quaint, amusing, baffling, erratic and incomplete, with some - maybe key - words being left in the original, as though they were too much for the translator to handle.

With one language, the tool often repeats certain words or phrases, so we get, for example ...of the sense of humour of the sense of humour... and a regular repetition, in particular, of Sacred Heart and heart. Occasionally I've even seen something like sisters of the heart of the heart of the sacred heart! I am assured by a native speaker of that language that there's nothing in the original to suggest a stress on those words, much less literal repetition, so we put this down to yet another endearing quirk in the translator's toolkit.

The other day, though, it seems to have got stuck on some sort of hearty loop! Never mind two or three repetitions of the heart, this is what it proudly presented me with:

From... to the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of the It's a celebration!

I chuckled, but also smiled wryly at the thought that in here lay a deeper message: to go on and on (and on) being "of the heart", Jesus' Heart, continuously - and that yes, it's a celebration!

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Listen to him

Yesterday evening I visited a parish where a group of people with intellectual disabilities were preparing for an inclusive Mass. The Sunday gospel of the Transfiguration was going to be acted out, after which a central, simple message would be imparted: Listen to him. 

And it occurred to me that this is the message which can so easily be lost, amid all the dazzle and brilliance, the clouds and voices, the prophets and proclamation of God's Beloved. But this was the message God wanted us to hear.

Listen to him... in prayer and in scripture, but also in everyday life. Listen to him... present in events and in people, in the news and in workplace conversations, in the hesitant blossoming of spring and in the vivid dying of autumn. Listen to him... amid the dazzle and the clamour; discern his voice among so many others. Listen to him... very especially, when his voice is barely a whisper, or when his words are a discomforting challenge; a call to love, to forgiveness, to reconciliation, to surrender. Listen to him... even when he seems to be asking more than we feel we can give, when he is calling us to something bigger than and beyond ourselves.

Listen to him... and keep listening, not only when you're in the mystical heights, but especially in flat times, in ordinary places and on rocky paths. Listen to him, be open and trust.

NB: I took this photo this morning. The weather is icy cold, but backlit by the cold sunshine, this somewhat premature camelia is enjoying its own moment of dazzling brilliance!

Monday, 19 February 2018

In praise of... Lenten limoncello

It's been a while - several years in fact - since I last made limoncello according to my friend Cloister's recipe. Then an unexpected surge of liqueur making two autumns ago - thanks to a glut of blackberries and grapes - reminded me of just how enjoyable it can be, and so here I am, once again, making limoncello this Lent. And yes, making an alcoholic drink during a season of fasting may seem counter-intuitive, but, as Cloister recommends, and I've discovered, it's actually a very good Lenten thing to do!

The limoncello itself takes about forty days to infuse, the lemon zest gradually filling the liquid with its rich, vivid colour and clear, tangy flavour, sweetened by sugar. This photo was taken just after the process was started, with the sugary syrup blended in and everything floating so beautifully. By the following morning, the zest, weighed down by its own heaviness, had completed its inevitable descent to the bottom, already lined with a thin sediment of sugar granules. And that, of course, is very much how the Lenten journey can be for us. We begin, buoyed up by our desire and enthusiasm and good intentions, but - maybe not overnight, but certainly in the subsequent days and weeks - we can all too easily become weighed down, our sweetness separating from the sharp, instead of permeating it.

Because of this, the limoncello can't be ignored for forty days: it needs to be shaken every few days, so that its ingredients rise and swirl and, uniting, bring out the best, the sweetest, the zestiest, in each other. And this can be a good moment to ask myself what, right now, needs to be lifted, even shaken up in me. What do I need to do, to return to my original enthusiasm and bring out the best in me? And gradually, just as I can see the sugar disintegrating and the liquid deepening in colour, I can begin to discern some change, some letting go, in myself. The final straining and perfecting - for the liqueur if not for me! - takes place during Holy Week, after which it's just a matter of waiting a few more days until the community Easter lunch, where I can share and enjoy the fruits of all my preparations.

So - as with life and Lent - making limoncello is a slow, steady process: a harmonising of opposing ingredients, a growth in depth and colour; at times a barely perceptible infusion, at others, a time of agitation and re-settling... all this, until we reach the glories of the Resurrection...

And if reading this has whetted your appetite at all, and you don't live anywhere near me - no problem, you're still in time to start your own, and have it ready to share at Easter!