Archive for March, 2010


Yesterday was the feast of the Annunciation: “… et Verbum caro hic factum est”, meaning: “… and here the Word was made flesh!” This ‘world-changing’ event took place at the small house in Nazareth, now within the beautiful, Basilica of the Annunciation, where it is said the angel appeared to Mary, asking her to become the Mother of God. “Be it done unto me according to your word“, were the words Mary spoke, according to Luke’s Gospel, when she accepted the will of God and said “Yes” to the message of the angel. Her words are carved on the stone, below the altar, in the little house of Mary, at Nazareth.

The Altar Stone – Basilica of the Annunciation

When God became man it was nothing less than a new creation – something completely new – made by the creating power of God, who makes out of nothing, for Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph knew nothing of this and was so upset when, on another occasion, he was told that Mary was with child, he decided to “divorce her informally”. Never, in the history of all humanity, has there been such a birth as this, defying every law of nature. No wonder that, in the scripture, it says: “For God nothing is impossible”.  This ‘miracle’ of creation reminds me of the Resurrection when, out of nothing, God ‘gave’ life back to Jesus – the life that had been taken away from him when dying on the Cross on Good Friday. Jesus – that baby conceived at Nazareth, when Mary said her “Yes” – was truly man, and truly God, and so, perhaps, it is the God in Jesus, that could do no other, but rise again in the humanity of Jesus?

Michaelangelo’s Creation – Sistine Chapel

Recently, I got to know a granddad, who came to see me and asked me to pray with him, because of a very serious family tragedy, concerning a grandchild. We stayed in touch. Grandma and granddad went to Rome, and when there, they thought of me and bought me a beautiful copy of the Sistine Chapel’s famous fresco, that of God creating Adam. The picture now hangs in our Priory. It shows God, depicted completely ‘alive’ with His helpers, angels and such around him, stretching out his arm towards the lifeless – but expectant – Adam. Adam is listless; there is no life at all, and fingers are just about to touch – a couple of ‘brush strokes’ showing us the dynamic – the momentous touch of God giving life to a human being. The artist, Michaelangelo, painted God’s left hand, almost embracing a ‘fearful’ angel, who looks at Adam and who seems very apprehensive and questioning: “Does God really know what he is doing? Is He aware of the tremendous risk he is taking, in creating Adam in his own image and likeness, with the ability to know, to love and to choose the direction in which to go? Does God realise ­– I wonder –what this will cost Him?” These are the questions that that particular figure evokes for me. Above, are much more-excited, and possibly less-experienced, younger angelic creatures who apparently cannot wait for God to create. They seem not to have thought about any consequences of God’s actions, but are just eager and ready to go right ahead in the ‘creation stakes’. All are depicted fully alive – and the energy in God – well that is like that of a million volts of electricity. Adam is completely nothing, lifeless, showing no joy, no knowledge, no will – an empty shell.

Creation out of nothing! It sets me thinking. If we have a real relationship with another person, something new is made – something that is unlike anything else in the world. It depends on one person being able to ‘let’ the other into his, or her, life and that requires ‘emptiness of self’. No two relationships are the same; how I relate to my parents is quite different to the way my brother or sister relates to them. We are all different and unique, all loved by God, all precious in God’s eyes. I wonder if relationships – so infinitely varied – are, in this sense, linked to the ‘nothingness’ from which God creates something new?

What I do know is that, very often, in order to live at peace and harmony with others, we have to empty ourselves of our own opinions and views, and let the other have his, or her, say, without imposing anything. No conditions! If I do this – and do it out of love – then, in a sense, I become nothing, and it will then become possible for the other to eventually ask the question, in an explicit or non-explicit way: “What do you think about this”. A dialogue is created that may have seemed quite impossible – ‘hope springs eternal’. There is quite a lot to learn from ‘nothingness’. St. Thérèse of Lisieux thought of herself as the ‘rag doll’ of God –  a ‘doll’ that God could throw here or there – do with whatever He willed, and she remained joyful.

The feast of the Annunciation has certainly got me thinking!

The Golden Rule

March 16th 2010 marked the 14th anniversary of my mother, Rosemary, who died in London, 1996, at the age of 89. Her anniversary made me reflect on the joy of knowing that we are united with all who have gone before us and who are now in paradise, and of the great gift of motherhood. Even though death separates us – in one sense – we are still able to talk to, and receive from, those who were so close to us – a wonderful two-way system of communication with those who have been a part of our lives. This year, two days before my mother’s anniversary, it had been Mothers’ Day. My mother taught me a great deal, apart from all the normal things that mothers teach; one important thing was to love the Catholic Church into which she had converted. My mother, in regard to her conversion to the Catholic Church, came under the influence (among other things) of Cardinal John Henry Newman and his biography “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”, and also, of course, my dad, who was a devout Catholic layman; she was determined to marry him, as a Catholic, herself!

However, my mother was not the only ‘mother’ in my life, important as she was in giving me birth and nurturing me as only human mothers can.  As you read on, you will begin to understand why I make this bold statement….

An ancient text from Islamic writings states:

“None of you is a believer until he desires for the other what the other desires for himself”.

(Number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths)

This lovely saying is actually the Golden Rule of all religions and even of humanists; it holds a prominent place at the United Nations headquarters. For Christians and Jews it arises out of the Torah in the book of Leviticus, originally, though of course the wording is not exactly the same, and there it refers to any strangers, living among the Holy People of God, in those far off days. Jesus, himself, taught us the Golden Rule in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. 

In 1997, this text was quoted in the famous Mosque of Malcolm X in Harlem, New York, by a frail, white Italian woman, the first ever to enter and speak to 3000 people – mainly black American Moslems – and to murmurs of approval from this large audience. Now, Harlem is not the usual place for white skinned delicate looking ladies. It is an Afro-American residential area; some might call it a kind of ‘ghetto’, which has been marked, significantly, by serious violence, over the years. It goes without saying, that a white skinned New Yorker, does not think of going into that area unless he, or she, has an important reason for so doing – and even then trusting in the protection of God and God’s supporters! Malcolm X himself, was assassinated in 1967, by those black Americans who did not agree with his views; he had undergone a dramatic transformation, once having ceased to oppose ‘white’ America and begun to embrace the building of American unity, in the 1960’s.  And, the speaker on this momentous occasion, this frail Italian lady?  She was called Chiara Lubich, and March 14th 2010 marked the second anniversary of her death, the passing of someone whose influence has changed my life completely.  This last week I was reminded that I was not the only one! In many ways she became even more influential, for me, than my own mother, Rosemary, and that is true for many others.

How did this come about for me and many others? It is far too long a story to explain in this short piece, but, on the anniversary of her death, March 14th 2010, there were over 650 ‘celebrations’ world-wide, of her life. One took place, in Rome, on the Capitoline Hill – symbolic centre of government for Rome, from ancient times – at the heart of the city, by the forum. This celebration was organised by Rome’s Town Council, because 2010 marks the tenth anniversary of the City of Rome bestowing honorary citizenship on Chiara Lubich. In England, the equivalent might be the Guildhall in London and the London County Council and Mayor honouring a person, in such a way. In Rome, the title given to the celebration was “Chiara Lubich – A Life for Unity”. In the year 2000, she had been honoured with the Citizenship of Rome, because ‘her’ movement – the ‘Focolare Movement’ – had been ‘in Rome’ 50 years, 1950-2000, and the Citation for her ‘Roman Citizenship’ says: “The Movement creates a humanism of a new people of every culture, religion, age, and social standing”. Those present last Sunday, 14th March 2010, were artists, Nobel prize-winners, cardinals, Members of the Italian Parliament, her family, members of the Focolare Movement, founded by Chiara, and many others whose lives had been changed because of contact with her and with her spirit.

The two-hour long celebration, last Sunday, focussed on the main events in her life. (Those interested can follow this on the website It is mainly in Italian, but the Jewish Rabbi and the Imam, referred to below, speak in English and can be picked up after 20 minutes or so.)  Here I want to focus on just one event – the Harlem Meeting in 1997 – mentioned above in paragraph 5.  Apart from showing a short clip of what happened in 1997, people that had been present at Harlem spoke about what that event had meant for them.

Michael Shevak

Notably, one was Jewish Rabbi from New York, Michael Shevak, who went to the Mosque because he was asked to go and listen to Chiara. He explained what a fearful experience it was for him and his wife, both white skinned, and Jewish. He had been brought up by good parents, but was taught to be prejudiced against those who were not white. He was terrified of visiting the dangerous area of Harlem – an area you did not visit as a white person – if you ‘valued your life’. He explained that being Jewish, itself tends to make you fearful, but his prejudices also made him afraid of dark skinned races. However, he knew from experience, that when asked by the people of the Focolare Movement to go somewhere, he would always go, immediately, in the knowledge that God was sending him ultimate challenges in his life. Therefore, going to Harlem meant making an act of faith – an act of faith that would take him, and his wife, to the edges of their faith and trust. At the end of the talk, given by Chiara on that ‘famous’ day, he turned to his Christian friend, next to him, and said one word: “Incredible”. It was almost ‘unbelievable’ that such a thing had happened at all.

Imam El Hajji Izak-El Mu’eed Pasha

Even more amazing, for me, were the impressions of the present Imam of the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque, Imam El Hajji Izak-El Mu’eed Pasha – a large well spoken black American – who himself had been present in 1997. He spoke in such hushed, and awesome tones, saying that the dignity, honesty and innocence of Chiara Lubich, would never be forgotten by the two millions strong Muslim community of WD Mohammed, founder of this American Muslim movement, and the person who hosted and invited Chiara to Harlem in 1997.

Chiara and WD Mohammed 

 Malcolm Shabazz Mosque Harlem

It was also important to note that those who frequented the famous Mosque, named after Malcolm X, where Chiara gave her talk, would never forget it. He went on:

“Chiara had delivered to the Moslems of America the words of Jesus Christ (blessed be his name) and his mother Mary (blessed be her name) and as a result Chiara would be present always in the hearts of the Muslims and of all Americans. Furthermore the pact of unity made between Chiara and WD Mohammed would never die; it has changed the world and certainly it has changed America for the better.”

These are strong words of hope that refer to things happening now – things that have happened in the life-time of the readers of this blog. ‘HOPE’, a virtue akin to confidence and self-esteem, is one of those qualities that a mother instils in her children, but sadly something that is lacking in many hearts today – witness one fact alone – the extraordinary rise in ‘young’ suicides in our country. It is, perhaps, ‘hope’ above all else, that Chiara has given to me and to many others, building in my case, on the loving experience I received from my own mother, Rosemary, and my father, Henry, amid all their limitations – not to mention my own! Real hope comes – not from abstract theory – but from the concrete experience of life, and many people who belong to the ‘humanism’ of a ‘new people’ of every culture, race, religion, age and social standing – referred to by those who gave Chiara, Honorary Citizenship of Rome – are recipients of this life-giving experience. I count myself among them.

To conclude, I thank you mother, Rosemary, for all you gave me, and thank you, Chiara, mother in another sense, for all the ‘Hope’ and ‘Meaning’ given to my life through ‘knowing’ you. Actually, Chiara, I thank you because you have simply helped me to see my inheritance as a Christian, a Monk and a priest – privileged to be a monk of Ampleforth Abbey; privileged to be a priest in St. Mary’s Leyland,– trying to be at the service of all with whom I am involved. You emphasise again the ‘Golden Rule’: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”, and so point me in the direction of becoming an ever-better Christian, as you encourage others to become ever better, in their own path to God. But, there is something more that you have given me – the beauty of belonging to a people who live and work for unity – a unity that I would never have known – never have experienced, had I not come to know the people who belong to every culture, race, religion, age and social standing.  Truly, they give such a special enrichment to life – and all of them hold fast to the ‘Golden Rule’.


Is it true that human beings, today, are lonelier than in the past? Igino Giordani (1994-1980), now on the road to beatification and sanctity, was a prodigious Italian Catholic author / writer, a man I was privileged to meet on more than one occasion and whose thought and culture, for me, was and still is fascinating: he still reminds me so very much of my father, Henry Cotton, though Igino was a man of far wider experience and culture than my Dad. The similarities arise from his simple, yet profound, love of God and neighbour, together with his fatherliness!

In his diary for the 23rd January 1948, when he was then an MP in the Italian parliament, Igino wrote:

“The loneliness of fear is not that of the hermit, but that of the people of the streets and of the (political) assembly ….when you are misrepresented, misunderstood and oppressed, as though you are not really fit to live in the space you occupy”.

This phrase “loneliness of fear” gives a ‘bump-start’ to a train of thought … .. when we simply do not communicate with our fellow ‘men’ – when we are so preoccupied with our own affairs – when through our lack of neighbourliness we often ignore others and don’t even see them, then at times, seeds of the “loneliness of fear” can spread in oneself and on to others.  This feeling can be all the more pronounced in times of trouble, when our isolation takes over – when, say, the computer breaks down – what a disaster, in itself – when we are alone in our motor car and a break-down occurs – and real fear creeps in … … I could go on, but you will know what I mean.

People say that the ‘quality’ of neighbourliness is growing less: Lancashire folk were well known for their neighbourliness and friendliness, (nothing to do with being a ‘nosy parker’) yet today in Lancashire there are people who do not know, nor particularly want to know, their neighbours. To be fair, there are others who enjoy neighbourliness; they are themselves – and have – great neighbours … .. often amongst the older folk, mark you! But, social structures are constantly changing, and evidence from our worries, i.e. some events such as the break up of families, family tragedies – even concerning the children, the difficulties of staff at school faced with the bad behaviour of pupils, today’s much publicised anti-social behaviour – and probably, many other things that readers may be able to add – all suggest family life and social structures are fragile. Let’s face it – the Church is fragile; human beings – like us – are fragile!

‘Hope’, for me, is the same as that provided by Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter, known best by the first three words of its Latin title: “Novo Millennio Ineunte – At the beginning of the New Millennium”. The whole letter is well worth reading, but let us pause on Section IV, “Witnesses to Love”. Pope John Paul II put all his thoughts into the context of the ‘amazing experience’ of the Jubilee Year, the year, 2000, manifest in Rome, as he considered renewal of the Church. One of the best experiences were the days in Rome covering ‘World Youth Day’ with 3 to 4 million young people in the city, and no riots, no bad behaviour, but rather joy, hope, singing and happiness, as young people from all over the world, flocked together. His words are inspired by the Gospels and he points out that pastoral planning –  for any kind of renewal – must be inspired by the New Commandment.

Now this corresponds exactly with experience – my experience. At a meeting in Middleton, Manchester in 1972, 500 or so quite ordinary people demonstrated something quite extraordinary – and all because their focus was the living of the New Commandment – a life-changing experience for me. Above all, I saw that to live the New Commandment was not a dream, but a possibility: it is a fact that many people desperately wish to live their lives focussing on this Word of the Gospel always, and ever since then, I have counted myself one of them. And the occasion? That was my first ‘Mariapolis’.

The words of the Pope fell on “rich soil” when I read them. He, himself, did not pluck the ideas out of thin air: they come from his experience. He quotes St. Therese of Lisieux, proclaimed a Doctor of the Church, because she was an expert in “the knowledge of love”:

“I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was aflame with Love. I understood that Love alone stirred the members of the Church to act…I understood that Love encompassed all vocations, that Love was everything” (St. Therese).

Section 43, of Novo Millennio Ineunte, is headed: ‘A Spirituality of Communion’. The Pope begins:

“To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is beginning”.

He goes on to write about the practical meaning of this. He says it must be promoted by teaching people about it. But note the word “home“. Do we not all long to feel at home with ourselves and others? Herein lies a clue to our understanding and to our learning.

I, too, have spent time specifically learning about this; in fact for two months – December 1982 to January 1983 – I had permission to attend a ‘school’ for men in religious life, to learn about communion or unity. In total, we were a group of about 12 men at ‘Castelgandolfo’, situated in the Alban Hills, just outside Rome, with a ‘Cappuchin’ as our ‘centre of communion’, and with Spaniards, Columbians, Ugandans, French, Italian, and English among the group. It came as a ‘cultural shock’ to live closely with people of other countries, but with a ‘built-in’ greater shock to discover that one of the Spaniards resented all British people, because of our occupation of Gibraltar! The dispute concerning Gibraltar had never crossed my mind as being of any great importance! In the end, we became the best of friends, after he told me he had never ‘loved’ an Englishman more than me because, having offered, he did in fact, darn a big hole in one of my socks. After that we laughed a lot! At the end of the two months or so, I asked my Ugandan companion what he thought of the Cappuchin, Fr. Bonaventura, who was so wise, so good at gathering us all together, so good at affirming each one personally and so understanding. He replied, “Fr. Bonaventura is not just a father to me, he is also a kind of mother”, and I could not help but agree. The learning process for me goes on with the living experience of life, right up to today!

The fact is that we have all been brought up – in the Church, and in society – not to be men and women of ‘communion’ but rather ‘fulfilled individuals’ who achieve fulfilment by promoting our own talents together with the attitude, ‘the devil take the hindmost’. But, this way of life is diametrically opposed to the way of ‘communion’. In fact, the great challenge all of us face is to discover how we can live as unique persons – responsible for our own decisions – but in the knowledge that, at the same time, we will only discover the person we are, by taking into account our relationships with others. A fine priest, responsible for all the diocesan priests who wished to live this life of communion and now deceased and who was known to me, put it like this:

I am fully a person when freely and consciously I affirm the other, even if it costs my life: this approach, Jesus explains in these words: ‘No one has a greater love that the one who gives their life’ for the other. In other words: nobody is more themselves, more a person than the one who safeguards the transcendence of the other by transcending themselves in denying themselves. This is the law of divine society as it was revealed and lived by Jesus; and it could not but be also the law of human society and of every kind of human living. Jesus himself helps us to understand it. The grain of wheat is not itself unless it becomes a shoot; but it becomes a shoot only by passing through a kind of dying. He also said: ‘the one who wishes to save his own life will lose it while the one who loses it, who is ready to sacrifice it, will find it’. (Fr. Silvano Cola)

Yes, there is a lot to learn – something closely connected with humility – that helps a person to realise that they cannot hope to face the challenges of life, on their own – without the help of others. It is not an easy lesson to learn, especially when we are invited by the world, and even by the Church sometimes, to be independent, self assertive, develop our talents, to be self-motivated and to be proud of ourselves. In business, in politics – even in our own neighbourhoods and possibly in the Church – this can mean putting the other person ‘down’ who thinks differently, or who has a different culture, or is just ‘in the way’. Of course, we need our self-esteem; we need to have a legitimate pride in self, but – careful now – a pride that comes from the knowledge that any gifts and talents we have are from God, and that without God, we can so easily turn in, on self, and apply the glory to self. This, in the end, leads to disaster. Furthermore, these gifts and talents should be used to affirm and not suppress others, for if we suppress others, we will only create enemies, and become people who failed to give, of self, for the sake of the other.  Ultimately, we would become self-centred, rather ‘twisted’ individuals, failing to develop into the person that God intends us to be – a person ‘in communion’ with others.

A word of caution! There is so much more to this whole question of ‘Spirituality of Communion’ –  much more than can be found written here, but the most important conclusion is that, in any event, it is not so much something to write, as something to experience. It does bring hope to those who think and live in this way – hope that will help to overcome that ‘loneliness of fear’ identified by Igino Giordani in his writings of 1948, now well over sixty years ago. His words were meaningful then!  I believe they still are!

Nothing Like A Challenge

“If you’re doing God’s work, how is it that you feel discouraged? The more difficult things become, the happier you should be, just as Peter and John, after they had been flogged: ‘As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name’. (Acts 5: 41) When you are successful, give thanks to God. When you fail, likewise give thanks to God, for it is when you fail that he tests you to see if you are working for him or for your own glory.  In fact to be joyful and courageous during times of failure is much more difficult than being joyful in times of good fortune: you can count the number of heroes of the first kind on the fingers of one hand.” (Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan “The Roots of Hope” published New City 1996 536 & 537.)

In the little book of daily sayings about the ordained priesthood, one can identify a period of three or four days, around Saturday 27th February, when the theme has been the presence of God’s Love manifested more prominently in failures or mistakes, than in success, and in all this, I was once again struck by the Vietnamese Cardinal, who wrote his little sayings in his prison cell – you may remember him from a previous blog, dated 27th November 2009. In the opening quoation, he throws out a challenge: that those who are joyful and courageous in times of failure, can be counted on the fingers of one hand; they are so few. A challenge is a challenge, and although it is probably impossible for me, I like a challenge! Why should some people not ‘buck the trend’ and actually learn how to be joyful when they have failed? In our attempts to ‘rise to the challenge’ – to be joyous and courageous in times of failure – we may find encouragement in the text of ‘The Word of Life’ (March 2010) where it is written:

“For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt. 17:20).

The last phrase is not put there for nothing – it must have meaning! But, to understand its full meaning may be difficult.  However, on the website you can find the whole ‘Word of Life’ text for this month, commenting on this short phrase, and the commentary is very helpful, with a short story at the end.

Our times of failure are actually much more helpful in bringing us to the knowledge of God, than our times of success. Without God’s help, we cannot reverse our natural tendency to attribute our successes to ourselves – instead of to God, alone. When we forget the divine dimension, we damage ourselves; God teaches us, continually, to love Him, and sooner or later, there will be a ‘fall’ into something that makes us feel distressed or sad; often our own behaviour is the cause – the thing that saddens us most. Here, it is God who is gently talking to us – teaching us – and taking us by the hand and leading us back to him. Consider those feelings of sadness and distress that we experience: underneath they describe Jesus, who felt sad and distressed, himself, when alive on this earth – nowhere more so than when nailed to the Cross. Now, in our lives, he is feeling sad and distressed in you and me. Our problem is that we often do not, or cannot, see him in this distress and we fail to welcome him. A priest recently told a group of us that when he was working as a painter and decorator, before he was ordained, he fell from a ladder and seriously damaged his back. It meant having major surgery, with ‘plates’ put in to ‘steady up’ and strengthen everything. At first, he complained to God for allowing this to happen.  Only later did he come to realise that it was the very best thing that had ever happened to him. It made him stop and think – about where he was and where he was going. St. Paul said something that throws some light on this:

 ”When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified”. (2 Cor. 2: 1-2).

I wonder what Paul meant? What practical examples of Jesus Christ – ‘Crucified’ – did he make the centre of his conversation? We don’t know. But, there is an invitation, one that is hard to follow up – to be courageous and joyful in whatever the trial is: our mistake, our sin, our accident or our misfortune. What Paul, Jesus and Cardinal Francis Xavier are teaching us is that we must not get ‘bogged down’ in the suffering, but by ‘embracing Jesus’ in that suffering, we can climb out of any self-pity, false pride or self-condemnation-without-hope, and live to the full whatever God is asking of us in that present moment. It may mean living a ‘divine comedy’ when you are feeling ‘rotten’ but nonetheless, continue to act well. The power of God will take over within you, sooner or later, and you will be taken up by Him into another way of living – another way of being – a life filled with His grace. There is nothing like a challenge and perhaps, by learning from these examples, more than a few can be among those who are joyful and courageous in times of failure.