Archive for October, 2010

I heard an interesting story about a Catholic man who left the Catholic Church to join a Protestant sect. As a boy, he belonged to a strongly practising Catholic family; he was an altar server into his late teens; he went regularly to Mass each Sunday. A model Catholic, you might say!  However, as he grew older and leaving home behind, perhaps at university, he began to attend an Evangelical Fellowship, and slowly he was drawn in to its life. In the end, he joined the group – much to the dismay of his devout Catholic parents. Not surprisingly, his parents asked him why he had chosen this other path, and he replied: “You never told me that I could have a personal relationship with Jesus; rather I was taken to a ‘ritual’, Sunday after Sunday, that meant nothing to me. Now I have found him”.

To be a Catholic – to remain faithful to the Church – right through to the end of our lives, following Jesus, we need to have something more in that life than the ‘every day’ prayers we say, the weekly Mass on Sunday, and our attempts to live as a good Christian should, without giving way to too many of our failings. This assumes that following Jesus includes being faithful to the Church. Today we have a modern ‘myth’ that a Catholic can be a faithful follower of Jesus, and yet not be a part of the Church. A person might call themselves a Catholic – may even try to live a decent life according to their conscience, but, without belonging to the Church – and being part of it –  they could hardly be put forward as a ‘model’ to follow. If we have the right disposition, Jesus comes to us, personally, and today, through the sacraments, just as he was the personal friend of his disciples, two thousand years ago. Of course, sometimes we may not feel that we are in touch today with Jesus, as a person of, and in, the Church, just like the young man with whom I began. We may not feel the warmth of God’s presence; we may not find support, good teaching and his presence in the liturgy. These are, I know, some of the reasons why people decide not to belong to Jesus and the Church.

Many Catholics, young and old, struggle to belong to the Church. The young face a different problem than the more mature because Britain’s young, oftentimes, have had little real and meaningful contact with the Church. They may attend at Sunday Mass – but so many do not; for many, their attendance at school, with Mass, prayers and its Catholic life, may be the only contact they have with the Church, and this may not be enough to relate to their own lives, unless they do build a relationship with Jesus and do become involved in the Community of Faith. It is good to know that both students, and staff, do find Jesus and the Church, in our Leyland schools, and some are touched deeply enough to become part of the living Church community. It is also a great joy to know that parishioners in St. Mary’s are prepared to support our ‘Youth Foundation’ and our Parish Youth Worker; the existence of the group provides for a continuity of contacts with the Community of Faith; it allows those contacts to grow and to deepen. In passing, a great ‘thank-you’ goes to those volunteers who support our Youth Worker and enable the parochial youth work to flourish.

At this point, I turn to the question of the more mature Catholic and keep in mind a conversation I had, recently, with a very experienced priest; he described a particular phenomenon – the one that concerns me, here. He explained that a particular parishioner, a parent, and probably grand-parent, a life-long Catholic had suddenly ceased to come to Church, after years of practising the Faith. This, too, bears out my own observation of some Catholic adults, and it is hard to generalise why this should be so. There are probably as many reasons as there are people, but somewhere, they must include some sense of disillusionment – including that loss of the special relationship with Jesus – that is, always providing Jesus was there in the first place. Religion may have been just a matter of ritual, and/or external conformity.  Then, of course, we must remember the multitude of people, of all ages, who have hardly ever been regularly, and in reality, part of the worshipping Community of Faith. They might well call themselves Catholics, but they do not come, regularly, to Church.  I am sure that there is, also, a host of reasons why.

My own life, as a monk, was transformed when I, too, entered into a personal relationship with Jesus: this happened when other lay people – people who knew God’s love – helped me to understand that God loves me immensely. Each and every person – including me – in his heart, is a unique masterpiece, and everyone can freely respond to His Love.  I did, by choosing again, for myself, the path I was already treading – the life of a monk.

I am writing this ‘blog’ whilst on holiday in Italy. On Saturday, last, I attended a day’s meeting entitled, ‘Charisms in Communion’ held in the City of Assisi.  Attending were other men and women in Religious Life, also laity, many of them quite young, a Cardinal, four Bishops, the two leaders of the Friars Minor (OFM’s) and the Conventual Friars (OFM Conv) and leading Cappuchins. People estimated we were about two thousand in number, altogether. The meeting was held in joyful spirit, but by far the most enjoyable moments arose out of that sense of coming together, meeting with friends, both old and new. We stopped to pray, for a moment, at the Porziuncula, the little “Church” within the basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. St. Francis considered this the ‘cradle’ of the Franciscan movement; it was here, also, that he died.

 Religious and Others Gathering for the Meeting and Prayers Before Mass 

To begin the day, Mass that morning had been celebrated in the Church of St. Clare, where there is an enclosed Poor Clare community, and within their convent they have the incorrupt body of St. Clare. Afterwards there was a press conference, to explain and publicise this venture, because it is still quite new to witness Religious and the new charisms in the Church together; both events were moving and joyful because they were witnessing to the freshness of the post Vatican 2 Church and were, very much, ‘forward looking’; I have no doubt the Holy Spirit was present throughout – almost tangibly so! On the day, at least 500 people were treated to lunch by the Franciscan organisers, with the Franciscan friars ‘waiting on’. Jesus was there, for sure, because of the joy we felt – the service given to us, by so many people, and the help we gave to others, by our presence, and response to their love. In the afternoon, we had talks in the upper Basilica, built over the tomb of St. Francis.

             Cardinal Vlk & Abbot Raymond              The Refectory Where Lunch Was Held 

All this manifests the ‘yes’ response St. Francis gave to God, in Jesus, and the ‘yes’ of the millions of people, today, who are also doing their best to follow Jesus. The whole world was changed by the ‘conversion’ of St. Francis, when he entered into a living relationship with Jesus. That relationship was marked by suffering; of that there can be no doubt for witness the marks of the stigmata he was given later on in his life, at La Verna. Even today, we, in Leyland, are influenced by that response of St. Francis, because we have Sister Veronica working among us, a Franciscan Missionary of St Joseph, much loved because of her evident love of the people, and her devotion to God and his Love.

Stained Glass Window of St. Francis and St. Clare ……. St. Francis Holding Up a ‘Tottering’ Church

Some of the Older People and Three Young Friars Present at the Afternoon Session

To conclude, I think it right to point out that there are messages here for all of us.  Our experiences – all of them taking place each and every day – here in Assisi and, most certainly, back home in Leyland, and in a time continuum, are part of a learning process. We all have something to learn and to ponder as we live and reflect on our lives. Our response to God and his love in Jesus WILL make a difference to the people we are, to those around us and to the world in which we live.


 “Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth.”

(Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945) 

“We know truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.”

(Blaise Pascal, 1623 – 1662) 

Truth – a virtue oftentimes, under-rated, neglected even, but which, on closer inspection, is deserved of a much higher priority.   When all is said and done, what value does life hold if it cannot be based on truth?   Only the other day I was chatting to an old friend, long admired and respected, and I suppose it was this which gave rise to the subject of this ‘blog’.   He said that among the things he most regretted in his life as a child, was to have told lies to his father, out of fear of a good telling off, (or worse).  He had been playing football and had broken a window – not deliberately, but recklessly, I suppose, kicking a ball about with windows in the vicinity.  When asked about the damage, he said: “Not me.”  At any rate, he was found out in his deceit, and was chastised, but, this was not the end of the matter.   My friend said that his greatest cause for sorrow arose, not out of discovery, or punishment, but because, for a time, he had then lost his father’s friendship – something of great value to him – but, something which could not be bought, sold or easily regained! 

“If you begin the day with love in your heart, peace in your nerves,

and truth in your mind, you not only benefit by their presence

but also bring them to others, to your family and friends,

and to all those whose destiny draws across your path that day.”

(Source Uknown) 

If we really think about such things, and give them their proper meanings, then TRUTH, essentially, lies at the very heart of all important human relationships, for without it there can be no trust, no honour, no loyalty, and, therefore, no respect, no friendship, no love.   From time to time, I suppose, we have all resorted to what we call ‘little white lies’ to save some relative or friend, or ourselves, from having to face, or tell, the truth – something akin to moral cowardice.   But, should truth come to the surface, as it usually does, then things are always so much worse than had the truth been faced in the first place.  There are much more serious casualties in a life of deceit, however.   Once a person is known to have deceived another, then it becomes very difficult to trust him or her, again – a feeling which multiplies – more lies, more deceit, more distrust – and this can often result in the destruction of a valued friendship, the relationship between a parent and child, or, indeed, a marriage of long standing.   At work, and in business, trust is essential. 

Jesus knew full well the value of such things for did He not say to us, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”, and should not this make me think that, not only is truth important in human relationships, it must also form the basis of our relationship with Our Lord and God?  


“Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life” 

How can we tell God, our Father, that we are sorry for our sins, unless we are telling the truth?   How can we say we will not sin again, with a false heart, and expect forgiveness?   And how can we say to God that we love him, and hope to deceive Him?  But, perhaps, coming down to earth again, we should leave the final word on this subject to Shakespeare, who undoubtedly knew human nature, to the core, and the intrinsic value of such things.   In, perhaps, his most famous play,  ”Hamlet”, Polonius, the Lord Chancellor, gives some most meaningful words of  advice to his son, Laertes, – advice on conduct, friends, mode of dress, lending and borrowing – but then he goes on to finish with the following: 

(William Shakespeare – ‘Hamlet’, Act 1, Sc. 3) 

Surely, such words go right to the heart of mankind’s integrity – the foundation stone of all relationships between men and women, of whatever race, colour or creed – they also signpost the way to mankind’s relationship with God, its Creator. 

Different Experiences of God

I well remember a once-time meeting with some young men in Religious Life and, on this occasion, was asked to share with them, my thoughts and experiences of ‘community life’; addressing this subject, it is essential to point out that Christianity is concerned not just with the ‘private’ relationship I have with God.  Essentially, it must include my relationships with others – and also something of their relationships with God. The only commandment that Jesus gave, calling it ‘HIS’, is the ‘New Commandment’ in St. John’s Gospel, (13; 34): “I give you a new commandment, love one another as I have loved you”; this alone should help us to realise that our Christian Faith is concerned as much with others, as with self.  

Many wise people – political and religious thinkers, etcetera – have pointed out that the greatest joys of our Christian Life stem from our relationships with others; concomitantly, these also provide, potentially, the greatest sufferings. Anyone, who makes living in ‘communion’ a priority, knows that it is not an easy option. Furthermore, there is no such thing as a ‘perfect community’ – one which could last for ever and ever on this earth. Human life is simply not like that; we are fickle human beings and change each day, oftentimes several times in a day.  Our circumstances change and so does the world about us.  We ‘changeable’ human beings have moods, misunderstandings and many limitations; sometimes we ‘fall out’, and this can lead to the break-down of relationships , for a time – or even permanently. In fact, it is God, alone, who gives us the graces to live in community, in harmony, or in unity, but we do not always accept them, and our lives (and relationships) are never static – never constant – and we must face new challenges, new problems, day after day, as we progress through life.  

Knowing that there are others, with whom I share Jesus’ New Commandment, means that the little word, ‘AS’ – a word of only two letters – assumes the greatest significance. I know that, in the literal sense, I cannot ‘love’ those with whom this relationship exists ‘AS’ Jesus did (and still does), for that would mean I would not be here to write these lines; nonetheless, that is the spirit of the relationship. Living the New Commandment is the condition for that promise of Jesus to be true: “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Mt 18:20). I may not always act in the way I should, but I can try to practice the first Gospel message of Jesus, as reported in St. Mark’s Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Good News”, (Mark 1: 14), for that is not a one-off message, for one occasion, but for each and every day that comes. Essentially, the Kingdom of God means living in the presence of Jesus; He is with me when I am alert to all He wants, in every present moment of life.  

To return to the young men in Religious Life, we did not, immediately and at once, come to discuss ‘community life’. I was interested to hear that, not all of them were able to feel that God loved each one of them, personally, and unconditionally. That came as no surprise, for it took me some eleven years of monastic life, for that particular ‘penny to drop’ and my young audience was of shorter vocation. My advice to them was to pray for the grace – really to know – that God loves each one of us, personally, immensely and without condition, not because the knowledge comes from parents, teachers or priests, but from within – heart, mind and soul – from within one’s own being. ONE JUST KNOWS IT! One of the young men came from the Congo, and I could not help but empathise with him in the fact that, in the east of that huge country, war seems endemic, and up to 4 million people have died in the past few years. “Oh yes,” he said, “that is the region I come from”. In an instant, the thought of much human suffering – killing, raping, injustice and hunger, etc – flashed through my mind, and not knowing him at all well, I wondered what on earth his experience was. He took me up on my words, “Knowing that God loves you personally, immensely and without condition depends,” he said, “on how you feel each day.” I remained silent!  Another of the young men came up with a challenging remark about prayer. Do you ‘feel’ God close to you when you pray? He said that, for him, a lot of the time, prayer was an empty ritual and it did not seem to change things much. He followed this by pointing out that, if this was so for him, a man dedicated to God in Religious Life, how much harder it must be for laity, without that advantage. I listened well and had to admire the honesty of that young man. 

Many people may be able to identify with the challenge he presented, and yet, by the grace of God, this emptiness is not necessarily, (or usually) the only experience. Once Jesus is alive (and real) for a person – once he becomes KNOWN – then to pray becomes a great joy. I had a conversation with Fr. Theo (an occasional fellow ‘blogger’) this week, and he, in his late eighties, will get up early each day to pray; if he does not, then he will not have the time and space to do so. He also told me how much he loves the Breviary and that, if confined to a desert island, he would take the Breviary as his one book; he would feel lost without it. What then, is the difference between the young man who feels prayer is difficult, empty and virtually meaningless, and the old monk, who cannot but, spend time with the Lord? I suggest that it is not that one is better than the other, but that one has allowed the relationship with God – through Jesus – to grow, whereas the other is, perhaps, as yet, unaware of the closeness and goodness of God; that may continue until that special moment when, God willing, he will get to know Him. To feel comfortable, at home almost, in the presence of God, who, in the final analysis, is ‘almighty’, ‘all powerful’, ‘far beyond’ anything we can think (or imagine), and, from the human intellect’s deepest reasoning, ‘unknowable’, is a gift. The ‘heart’ of a person knows God, in ways that are not expressible in words, yet in a very special way, a person can come to know, and sense, that God is very close to him, and loves him, personally and without condition.  What I am describing is something intuitive – instinctive, yet very real!  

Life today is exceedingly complicated – I suppose it has always been so, but, with the changes that have taken place over recent decades, in technology, communications, travel and the movement of populations – I could go on and on – the changes we experience are accelerating.  Life changes so very quickly, ideas change and this means that the way we do things must change, correspondingly. For some people, the ‘old’ ideas – our traditional certainties about knowing God – are no longer certain, and so it becomes all the more important, in this present day and age, to have some kind of ‘evidence’ of a loving God. I believe that one can take this a step further, and, with careful observation, it may be that God is trying to help us accrue this evidence, if only we take time to reflect and look.  

The rescue of the Chilean miners, from their ‘rock’ cave 2,000 feet below the Atacama Desert, has deeply affected the peoples of the world during the last few days.  I believed this to be a prime example of God, at work, in the world today.


The Chilean Miners – in ‘Captivity’ and in Thanksgiving for their Rescue 

Some parishioners have commented that the BBC has not broadcast quite so many examples of reverence to God and prayer – graphically illustrated by television pictures of rescued miners falling to their knees in humble thanksgiving – since the Pope was here. Millions have seen the faces of the rescued miners – and their loved ones – in circumstances of supposed tragedy, in hope, and in the joys of deliverance – and these are sincere, simple people of peasant stock – not your sophisticated intellectual with all his well-developed tastes and assets.  One of the miners, describing his ‘captivity’ and rescue said; “I was with God and the devil.  They fought and God won.” The emergency – involving the lives of 33 men – led to a cooperative effort from many nations, all helping in the rescue that demonstrated a sense of world-wide solidarity and unity. Certainly, people all over the world, have prayed for the trapped miners and are now rejoicing and thanking God for their rescue. 

However, there are more examples of God at work in the world.  Today, I received an account of the tragedy of the Pakistan floods.  Again, the misery and suffering has been almost beyond imagining, but there is more … . strangely, the report, though it brought tears to the eyes, it also speaks of hope. It was sent to me by a friend, Tomeu Mayans, who received it directly from his friends in the Pakistan Focolare community; they, in response to many enquiries, were desirous of sharing their experiences of the flood and its effect on the communities.  (Tomeu, a Majorcan, and myself have holidayed together several times.  He has worked in London for the last 18 years or so, and has been waiting for his visa to re-enter Pakistan, which has now been granted.  We share the same desire to live ‘in communion’ – in ‘unity’.)  

“These floods have created a mass of water on the move equal in size to the land mass of the whole of Great Britain. 78 of the 121 districts of Pakistan are affected. 14.1 million people are directly involved in the disaster which indirectly has affected another 6.2 million people. 1.1 million homes are destroyed and another 800 thousand damaged. 

As we slowly analyse what has happened and come to terms with it, we realise the disaster is without any precedent, and that the number of vulnerable people in need exceeds the capability of any single institution to help them. Only a common effort of a lot of people and organisations can possibly help to alleviate the sufferings of these people. Because of geographical reasons and the numbers involved in this natural disaster, it is the biggest and most complex situation that the world community has ever had to face.  The majority of those suffering are poor peasant people and unskilled workers who live on the threshold of poverty already.  To give you an idea of the situation we (the Focolare community of Pakistan) thought it would be helpful to share with you some experiences that have come from the Karachi community which is in the South of the country, and a city of 16 million people, and in the midst of the tragedy.” 

“We are poor people but we realised we could share with the others the little that we have and look for further help. God would certainly help us because we were doing this not for ourselves but for his children in need.  

On September 13 a small group visited a school that was completely full of people who had lost their homes. Some government volunteers were there doing a good job but there were still many things needed. I told my Muslim supervisor at work and he donated a lot of medical supplies, while other colleagues helped collect money and new clothes together with some neighbours.  

We split into two groups, one for the school and other for victims some distance from the city, because things in the Sindh province were even worse. The Bishop of Hyderabad encouraged us and was pleased with our initiative. 

In the end we managed to get together 20,000 rupees (about 181 Euro), a good sum considering our situation, but too little to help the 70 families and in particular the 200 babies we wanted to help. But we got other help from friends from all over the world and we were able to buy many other things to put together some good parcels for each family with essential ingredients including the ingredients to make a nice cake!  

During the three of the four days of the Muslim festival at the end of the fasting time of Ramadan, we worked preparing everything.  

Along the road to reach the refugee camp in the heart of SIndh we became aware of the harsh reality: many groups of people were waiting along the road and they ran behind the cars that passed. We were unable to stop because we knew that many lorries with supplies had been attacked and destroyed before arriving at their destination. A child ran behind us for almost a kilometre and only further ahead when we sure we were safe could we quickly stop and give him something.

Pakistani Floods – In the School 

But the real shock was when we reached the camp. Instead of the 70 families we had been told about there were 105. The class rooms of the school were packed with people, men and women, some expecting babies, many just newly born and children. They were all wearing the clothes they had on when they had escaped from the floods leaving all their things behind.  

They told us the waters had washed away all the crops and the farm animals. 

We gave out the 70 parcels which had some clothes inside and we managed to give to the 35 extra families at least some new clothes. What touched us was that these people were quite delighted with what we gave them, in fact they hugged us when they got their parcel. Even the children were delighted with their little parcels. We will go on helping them.” 


“On the 18 September we went back to the same camp to give them dishes and clothes to wear that they asked for the previous time, because they told us the government gave them food but no dishes with which to eat the food or put it out.  

We wanted to make the best use of the funds we were given and went to different bazaars to find the best prices. In Karachi the situation did not help, because there is much violence on the streets and many advised us not to go out. We went anyway because we felt it was so urgent to do so, and people could wait no longer.  

In the first camp we found 800 people crammed into a school; we gave out what we had and were able to give some money to a mother who had just given birth to a baby via a caesarean birth. We were told there were seven newly born babies in the camp. 

We got the older children together and played some games with them and they were really happy.  

Apart from the help we can give, we realized that moral support for these people is essential, to listen to their stories and let them feel not by words but by our presence and love for them that they had some brothers and sisters, and that God loved them. 

We then left for another camp given that we still had some dishes with us. The camp was inside an open air rice warehouse. It came as a great shock to us. There were in all six thousand people there, whole families living in a very confined space without any privacy. There was a long queue of people waiting to get water from a water wagon, a lady doctor with a nurse who were administering medicines to all that they could, even to a young child all on his own. ‘We do this’ they said, ‘because it is a matter of life and death’. As there was so little drinking water they forbad us to give out dehydration tablets because the people would have come to ask for water to swallow them and there was none. The lady doctor said to us ‘do all you can that is helpful in these circumstances; medicines are insufficient, they need mosquito nets, we need a dermatologist for the many skin diseases’. The people did not know what to do, and it seemed life had ceased for them. 

What struck us is their ability to face these difficulties. The patience of these people is incredible; though they have lost everything they are not angry or rebellious, but in peace, thanking God they are alive. We feel we cannot give ourselves peace while there are these brothers there like this; we feel their suffering is ours.” 


Nasreen visited the Risalpur camps and she shared with us: “Apart from taking practical help, given that I was the only person let in to the section reserved for women, it gave me the chance simply to stay with them and share their suffering. I was the first to be able to get in, and they really need to tell somebody what had happened.


Pakistani Floods – In the Women’s Camp 

The next day we got a phone call from a family member who lives nearby this town and she told us of the joy of the people to discover things in their parcels that they really wanted, like pens and paper to write letters and some powdered mild for the little children etc. 

For Ramadan we organised some other ways of helping in another camp where they had not had much of anything yet. We got together 681 parcels for the two different camps. 

In the first where the soldiers were we had gone the first time. The second camp was run the by the local administration and it was a much sadder place. The people were more abandoned. Many children had no clothes at all, they were dirty with matted tousled hair because they could not wash. They suffered many skin problems both because of dirt and the mosquitoes and flies that infested the camp. Luckily where they were there is water, and so seeing our parcels that had a lot of things to improve their hygiene they were so happy they could at last get a good wash. The women above all could not express their gratitude, it was so great.  

The soldiers came to help us in the first camp and they told us: ‘we see that you have done everything with a special kind of love and that you manage to give to each person an equal share, giving them much happiness’”. 

Nasreen went on: “for me I felt that the merit was not ours because the largest part of the money we had to buy things we had received from many generous people; our part was something different. I do not possess much, but I can offer my time and my work to go and buy things in the large market at Rawalpindi. There was a lot of traffic and it all took a long time in an asphyxiating heat. I was happy to go even though I had a serious eye infection that I got at school and gave a lot of grief. It was a hard and dangerous journey because the people are so poor. Armed men stop lorries and destroy them. Giving out parcels is not just an external gesture but above all the way to get close to these people, to be with them, sharing those moments of suffering. Really these are small things in comparison to all these people have lived through who were directly involved in the floods; it is my small contribution, and all together we can alleviate their suffering.”  

Some of the Risalpur families who were in the school have now been placed in tents, because the school must begin again as term has started. Winter is now coming and they need adequate clothing, shoes and mattresses apart from food.”  


This account really touched me because my friend, Tomeu Mayans, is going back to Pakistan in ten days time to share this experience, in the same Focolare community. As I said, he is a Majorcan and, with him I have, ‘Jesus in our midst’ through our pact of ‘unity’. Now, I live in luxurious England, where almost every need I have is catered for, and yet there, across the world, is a friend who will be in touch, at least, with those in the front-line of this massive Pakistan flood problem. With him, I can feel ‘in solidarity’: God has given me this friend, and across the miles, we can remain united; for this reason, among many others, I can say, even as I write these lines, that Jesus is close to me. Yes, in a special way I feel his presence; but, it is not a physical thing; it is spiritual and very real.  

In conclusion, I hope, and pray, that the Religious I met on that occasion, and all who read this ‘essay’ will find the same knowledge of God and his presence. Of course, it is based on faith, but faith is knowledge, and in a way, God is thus giving us evidence of his presence in our world. May our faith remain strong, and firm, and sure, and may the good Lord, through the helping hands of many people, help the people of Pakistan, as we thank Him also for the safe rescue of the Chilean miners.

Fifty years, or more, ago there was a common saying in an around old Lancashire, to the effect that: 

“God’s good –  An’ t’divil’s not bad to them ‘e teks to.” 

So there we have it – the dichotomy of two diametrically opposing concepts – good and evil, a dichotomy that pervades all our lives, from cradle to grave, whether we like it or not.  And the greater problem, perhaps, is that human beings are prone to the latter, rather than the former.  Sin is not – and never will be – a ‘nice’ subject.  A writer, putting his mind to a discourse on ‘sin’ is never going to win any popularity contests in his choice of subject matter.  Most would agree that it is not ‘fashionable’ to talk about ‘sin’. Rather distasteful, but, why?  I think the answer to my question is that we would all have to admit to having a guilt complex about sin.  It would be something we would rather see ‘brushed under the carpet’ – rather that, than get it out into the open – but get it out in the open, we must, as this is important to the discussion.  Sin is something that makes us all feel guilty – we are all sinners – apart, that is, from a couple of perfect saints who lived some two thousand years ago – Jesus and Mary, his Mother.  From Adam and Eve, and right down to you and me, across millions of years and billions of people, we are all – apart from these two – egotists who have put ourselves before God and the good of our neighbours.  

I use the  word ‘ egotists’ advisedly, for that, essentially, is just what sin is – putting ourselves and our desires before God and his loving friendship and kindness – and before the love and welfare of our neighbour.  In following our desires, our wants, our feelings, the ‘ego’ in us comes to the fore, promoting ‘us’ to the exclusion of ‘them’ – ‘them’ being God and our fellow man.  Please do not misunderstand – this is certainly no attempt at preaching – as I very much include myself in all of this.  Sinning thus, we turn away from God and our backs to every ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ on earth.  Just how self-centred can we get?  Well the answer is on display world-wide today and has been ever since the world began.  

Everywhere we can see examples of what ‘self’ – in its lust and greed for power, money, sex and all the earthy things that go with base human nature – can do for love, friendship, caring, peace and security, justice and fair-play.  It does not seem to matter in which direction you look, for, on every side, on every level, there is war, injustice, torture, false imprisonment, deprivation and hunger etc, on the international and national scenes, and all these are reflected in what we do to each other, when we examine our human activities, at the more personal levels. I take a look at the TV magazine, and on the front see ‘David’s Evil Plot’, ‘Has Marlon killed Shadrach?’, ‘Hostage Terror’, to name just three recent ‘spicy headlines’.  “Alright”, I hear you say, “but that’s fiction.”  Then switch on the TV and the national and local news programmes, and I will lay odds that quite often the truth is worse than the fiction.  All the positives – subsumed under the ‘umbrella of love and human kindness – are tossed to one side, when the negatives of self-centredness are allowed to take over.  And, it is just no use blaming governments or tyrants for what they do to thousands, perhaps millions, when we realise that we individuals are all in this mess together.  

And, what a mess! And over what a time span! The Bible is full of examples of such behaviour, right from Adam and Eve – through Cain and Able – Sodom and Gomorra – on to, and through the New Testament where Jesus calls a halt, and gives us two new commandments to replace the old ten:

Love God, above all.. … .. Love your neighbour as yourself. 

Unfortunately, humankind takes not much notice and continues down through all the pages of history – to the Greeks and Romans, the European nations in more modern times and their search for empires, west versus east, and north versus south, the ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots’, with slavery in the middle, dictators and tyrants versus their peoples, homicides, fratricides, matricides, patricides – through to genocides – you name it, and we have done it, individuals, families, partners, communities, societies, nations and groups of nations as far as the international – top to bottom and bottom to top – we have been there – killing, raping, assaulting, kidnapping, pillaging, stealing, lying – evil on top of evil – God and his goodness – never in sight – brotherly love thrown out the window; I said at the start that sin, and sinning, does not win any popularity contests.  How depressing!  But, that again, is just what sin does to us.  Because of the guilt complex – invariably attached to sin – we become part of a downward spiral and end up in deep depressions. 

So where is the light then?  Life, surely, cannot be all about doom and gloom – all about evil – to the total exclusion of good.  Experience teaches us that the totality is never composed of just one aspect, one side, one way of life, one set of actions, one faith, just one ideology.  Only God has that kind of unity, and it is he that provides the other side to the seemingly overwhelming imbalance.  He gives us the positive – the light – the good – the chance to escape the depressing and total blackness of sin and death to self. 

Given the gift of faith, we believe that God provided the answer to the unrelieved total ‘blackness’ of sin.  He has always loved us.  He loves us now, every second, every minute of every hour and day ….. so much so, that it was against His very nature to see us condemned to unremitting death for all eternity.  As we die, each one of us, He wants all of us to be with Him in heaven, a life of joy, peace and happiness, ‘until Hell freezes over’, upwards, and onwards …. ….  So Jesus comes into the ‘frame’ comes to save us from that horrible fate of sin’s ‘black hole’ and to give us hope – to give us light – to show us the way – to teach us the secret of happiness – because to give, is to serve, is to love God and our fellow man – the opposite of self – the opposite of ‘me’ – the opposite of ‘take’, ‘take’, ‘take.   We take Jesus at his word, the ‘penny drops’ and we then begin to see how wonderful it is to live with a clear conscience, to live loving God and trying to do His will, to live trying to love, be kind and to help others.  It seems to me that the man with a soul washed clean, is a man with a clear conscience, a man happy about his life and about his future.  He loves God.  He loves his fellow man.  He is united within himself – not at odds with anything or anyone – very much in that happy mode we call a ‘state of grace’  On the other hand, I never saw anyone truly happy when living a life opposed to God, opposed to his neighbours, when manifesting a soul as black as t’ fire-back. 

At this point, I think, we are back precisely where we started – back with the dichotomy – good versus evil: 



And this forces me to ask the question as to whether this discourse has been a waste of time?  I think not!  Given all the evil in the world is there any hope? I think there is – that there must be! The analysis forces us to consider that with God on our side and given the actions of Our Blessed Lord, his birth, life, death and resurrection, we are given the magnificent graces of  repentance and forgiveness for the sins we commit, if only we say sorry in all sincerity to God.  Once we are honest with ourselves and admit our faults, then ask for God’s help and forgiveness, we know that he will not turn away from us and leave us friendless.  He will always help us to ‘start over’ and with a ‘clean slate’ – at whatever time, however late – even on our death bed, as we draw our last breath.  All that we ever need to do is to turn to Him and say: “Sorry.” 

Where next?  Is that the end of all useful discussion on the subject?  Well no – because the subject inevitably takes us to the grave and beyond, to two judgements – the individual, immediately after death, and the general, at the end of time. 

Sistine Chapel Fresco – The Last Judgement by Michelangelo 

And here, we must rely on faith and the words of Jesus, himself.  We know that if we die in a state of enmity to God then, at our judgement, we shall hear the dreaded words: “Depart from me …… ” and we then face an eternity of suffering – the greatest of all perhaps being the knowledge that, through our own doing, we have denied ourselves that state of perfect happiness, living in God’s presence for ever, and ever – throughout an infinity we cannot begin to comprehend.  Hopefully, we may have succeeded in trying our best to follow God’s will, loving Him and neighbour, and then we will hear those wonderful words of welcome: “Come ye blessed of my Father….. “  However, at this point, most will more than likely meet with a problem – a problem all to do with some venial (minor) sins, and / or, the guilt attached to other sins we have committed.  The past sins, themselves, will have been forgiven, but there is now an atonement to be paid and that means a stay in Purgatory.  

 (Logic dictates that to pray for the dead means to pray for the souls in Purgatory.  The souls that have found their reward in Heaven have no need of our prayers – they can pray for we who are still alive.  As for those in Hell, it is of no value to pray for them as they have no promise of escape from their torments there – they are there for all eternity)… … … 

II Maccabees 12:43-46: “And making a gathering, he [Judas] sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection, (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead,) And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.” 

 St. Teresa of Avila – Interceding for the Souls in Purgatory

(from the Workshop of Reubens) 

The above arguments lead us to consider, now, some of the evidence for the existence of Purgatory – often thought of as a place to which souls go for a time.  The intuitive evidence, certainly, can be traced back thousands of years, to the earliest Christians, and the Catacombs, where there are 1st to 3rd centuries’ records of the Christian practice of praying for the dead, and beyond that, into the annals of Jewish history.   

The Catacomb of Callistus – Procession

(Writings found in the Catacombs (other than in the New Testament) take the tradition, of praying for the dead, back as far as centuries 1 – 3 A.D., to the early Christian writings such as the ‘Acts of Paul and Thecla’ and the ‘Martyrdom of ‘Perpetua and Felicity’)

The Bible speaks of something other than Heaven and Hell, often called the Limbo of the Fathers, for in the First Letter of St. Peter, (1 Pet. 3:19), it is said that Jesus, after his death and before his resurrection, went and preached to the ‘imprisoned spirits’ – souls of the just, in Limbo, who had died and could not yet go to heaven, because ‘redemption through Christ’ had not yet taken place.   Years ago in the ‘Apostles Creed’ we Catholics used to say: “… .. he descended into hell… ..”   Could it be that this (hell) Limbo (of the Fathers) is the same as purgatory? Maybe yes!  Maybe not! However, the long held belief is that the souls of the just were held in Limbo pending the actions of the Messiah.  If the limbo of the Fathers was purgatory, then this argument points directly to the existence of Purgatory. If the Limbo of the Fathers was a different temporary state, then the Bible at least says such a state can exist – a state other than heaven and hell.  Even today orthodox Jews commonly recite a prayer known as the ‘Mourner’s Kaddish’, for eleven months after the death of a loved one, so that the loved one may be purified. 

Similar intuitive evidence also exists for several other religions, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Mormons, among them, and the Moslems believe that Hell is temporary for some and permanent for others – all appearing to indicate the existence of some intermediate state – for certain souls – between heaven and Hell.   The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as: 

“purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC 1030). It notes that “this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” 

Theologians have tendered opinions as to Purgatory, somewhere between Heaven and Hell, and the time limits on our periods to be spent there – limits in proportion to the amount of sinful debt to be expunged – but my feelings, my instincts, are less than convinced by some of the arguments.  As I understand the teachings of the Church on this point, then our lives after death are lives of the spirit – lives spent in a state of being, no longer subject to, or limited by, time and space.  Going to Purgatory, therefore, will not be anything like a prison sentence of 6 months in ‘Strangeways’. We are told that God lives in a  perpetual ‘now’; He who is called ‘I am’ does not know past or future – only present – and, therefore, time would seem to have no meaning for the Souls in Purgatory.   However, we try to understand and explain what we mean by Purgatory, I think our efforts – largely built on faith and tradition – are likely to be wide of the mark.  The trouble is we have no clear explanation concerning this state of separation from the presence of God.  Hell, certainly, is a state of being in which we are to be everlastingly denied the presence of God, for nothing stained by mortal sin can ever enter Heaven.  Purgatory differs from Hell in one vital element – there is no mortal sin involved – and because of that it holds the promise that our separation from God and the happiness of heaven, will not last for ever.  The trouble with this is that this ideology takes us back into the problem of time, once again.  Leaving all that aside, the great promise of Purgatory, we believe, is that once the guilt of our sins is expunged, we shall then take our rightful place in heaven – with God – and in total happiness for all eternity. 

Good and evil, sin and death, Judgement Day, Heaven, Hell – or the promise held out by Purgatory – even if it happens to be ‘second best’ – takes us where, may I ask?  Forgive me for saying so, but such concepts describe the totality of what it means to be a human being – to have existence – in this world of ours.  In using the word’ totality’, I intend that it should be interpreted as holding all the most basic structures pertaining to our very existence – both spiritual and temporal.  We are born.  We live for an indeterminate number of years.  Our life is (bound) to be neither totally bad, nor totally good, but somewhere between the two extremes.  At some point in time, life gives way to death and then we face the judgement – and the consequences of our life on earth.  Those consequences can be hellish or heavenly – or again, in some spiritual state, somewhere between the two – but with the ultimate promise of a life of happiness with God.  

From childhood, I remember, vividly, some of the ‘fire and brimstone’ sermons that used to be preached in many Christian churches.  Thank God, this rather frightening aspect from our past seems to have mellowed, and we no longer listen (and shudder) at the sound of these tirades.  I cannot believe that God is like that – neither does he expect us to live in fear like that.  My own view, founded only on belief in God’s great love, is that through all – life, death, good, evil, judgement – God simply wants us to love him in return, to love our neighbour for his sake and to try to do our best to keep these two Divine commands. He knows we are not perfect, but, if we do this, if we try – sincerely – honestly – we shall not fail. 

My final thoughts go back to Maccabees: ‘It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead.’ I live in the fervent hope that someday, someone, somewhere, will pray for me.