Archive for November, 2010

You cannot be entirely free to…

You cannot be entirely free to do what you want, as if you hurt others you will be enslaved by fear they will hurt you

To be free is one of the great…

To be free is one of the greatest gifts a person can enjoy

After Mass on Remembrance Sunday, this year, I ‘bumped into’ a parishioner and simply asked him how he was keeping. “Not so good really,” he replied, and so I asked him why. “I am really upset at the soldiers who have had their legs and arms blown off, trying to bring peace in Afghanistan – I can’t get them out of my head!” Just one week later, he apologised for being so emotional, and I hastened to assure him there was no reason to be apologetic.


A very dear friend of mine once came out with the profound statement that men have become very good at inventing ways to maim and to kill other men – not so good at helping those in need – the hungry, the homeless, etc.


Whilst my opening gambit focuses on war, its results are not that far away from the agonies then being suffered by another parishioner, who was in tears after the Heysel disaster, in 1985, when 39 Italian and Belgian football fans died at the European Cup Final. I know the situation is different, but the two images together, remind me once again, of how international events can affect people in their personal, everyday lives.

Psalm 39 (No. 38 in the Catholic version) has a most intriguing phrase in it, which in the translation that we use for the Divine Office goes like this; it is, in fact, the last sentence of the psalm:

“Look away that I may breathe again before I depart to no more.”

Sometimes a phrase from the psalms strikes you, as this one did for me. It reads like a phrase of utter despair, and could be thought to be saying: “God, you can do no good to me – or to us – just give me / us a break, so that we can have some kind of a life before everything must end, for all eternity.” And yet, deep in my own heart, that is not the way I think of God. I think of God being where my ‘home’ is, where I can feel ‘at home’, where I can breathe, relax and just be myself. How, then, does this phrase make sense? Who does it apply to? Perhaps, it throws light on the above experiences.

It could fit the ‘corporate life’ of people in our world, or of a nation – so it would seem. Our world has many nations that seem to live in perpetual suffering, where a break from what is happening would be a ‘godsend’, and, to be sure, what happens in them affects many of us. One such nation would be the Holy Land, another Iraq, and yet another, a country like Afghanistan. All these countries appear to suffer from problems caused by people who want to control, dominate – or eliminate – certain groups, and in saying this I make allowances for the fact that the actual situation, in these countries, may not be quite the same as that portrayed by the media. But, for God to look away so that the people may breathe again – gain some respite before nothingness – appears to be taking the view that God is, in some way, responsible? To ask that there be some relief from murder, domination, killing, murderous suicide bombers, systems of political control that causes lack of freedom, lack of movement, lack of jobs, money and safety … … I could go on and on … … is assuming, in one sense, that God is permitting such things, even if He does not directly will them; this argument allows men and women to misuse their power and influence, until at some stage, God calls a halt. In the meantime, can it not be good to have a break from it all – so that the oppressed may breathe again, before death comes!

There are places where people live in utter deprivation, caused by poverty and natural disasters, seemingly without any signs of easy cure. Haiti would be a country in point. One wonders how the poor people there can survive with all they have gone through; so many families bereaved after the earthquakes; so little sanitation; so much poverty and lack of basic necessities; so little normal living. And now, raging cholera that can kill in four hours! Again, probably, the actual situation is different to the images we form from absorbing the media stories – but, who knows? In this example, would it not, indeed, be wonderful if this situation that God ‘permits’ could change, for a period, ‘so that people may breathe again’ with enough food, water, good sanitation, secure health provision and the necessities of life?

For some people, a country such as England fits into the ‘model’ I have described. Here in the UK, there is relative wealth and a certain freedom for some sections of its community, but there is also malaise, a lack of moral uprightness, a sense that the young have challenges ahead – to face and overcome – if they are to enjoy a future of meaning, safety and reasonable security. I hear people say: “Thank God I have lived my life, and do not have to face it now as a young person!”, and: “I feel sorry for the young and worry about their future!” What standards will they live up to, as they see values ridiculed, religion and its teachings rejected – or laughed at – and the future uncertain. Worries, worries, worries are what people face! “God give us a break so that I may breathe before I depart to be no more.”

There is another psalm that we sing at the Divine Office which also gives the same message. In the hymn of Psalm 139 the words are:

O God, you search me and you know me.

All my thoughts lie open to your gaze.

 When I walk or lie down you are before me:

 Ever the maker and keeper of my days…..

Although your Spirit is upon me,

Still I search for shelter from your light.

 There is nowhere on earth I can escape you:

 Even the darkness is radiant in your sight. 

In all of this, God is just ‘too much’ – too much ‘on top’ of me: he does not even allow me to breathe! God is like this, for me, when I feel I cannot look him in the eye – so to speak – when I feel that He and I do not really see eye to eye. And now, we are beginning to get to the truth of the matter.  These feeling arise only because I have estranged myself from Him, and this is the reason the psalmist seems to be seeking a ‘break’ from God’s presence. God is just too ‘good’, too ‘pure’, too perfect’, in the face of my own deficiencies, my deceits and double dealing. Until I can ‘come clean’ with God, who knows me through and through, I will not experience the amazing gentleness of God – that amazing gentleness that God has for me, personally.   “God visits us like the dawn from on high,” or, as the Italian version of the Benedictus puts it: “as the sun rises in the morning” (Luke 1; 78).

The first psalm referred to in this blog, Psalm 39 refers to this personal sinning, and at the sin of jealousy and judging of others, but in the light of how ‘frighteningly’ short life is.

“I said: I will be watchful of my ways for fear I should sin with my tongue …..O Lord, you have shown me my end, how short is the length of my days. Now I know how fleeting is my life…. In you rests all my hope. Set me free from all my sins, do not make the taunt of the fool…take away your scourge from me. I am crushed by the blows of your hand. You punish man’s sins and correct him….” 

It is often the case that when disasters befall nations – even natural disasters – people attribute the cause of such tragedies to the personal sins of the people; on a personal level, when tragedy strikes, the individual can think this is because God is punishing me for what I have done wrong. I disassociate myself from this way of thinking; it is ‘riddled’ with irrational guilt – not the virtuous guilt by which we know the ‘fear of the Lord’. All too often, irrational guilt is linked with deep despondency, or discouragement – despair, to choose a better word – and that is the breeding ground for evil to enter into one’s life. It says: “What the heck – I may as well give up trying as there is no way I can live according to beauty, goodness or love”.  

Often, unwittingly, we create conditions in our personal life that leave us very unhappy, unable to find peace for the situation we find ourselves in; in this there may be a whole variety of reasons. Furthermore, this personal state of affairs could be a contributory factor to the disasters that face communities. However, we should never forget the fact that people, consciously, make personal choices – evil and wrong decisions – that are designed to stir up wickedness leading to corporate disasters, in the political field, or even in nature – take the effects on the environment, we human beings have wrought, for instance.  

Returning to the line of the psalm: “Look away that I may breathe again before I depart to no more,” I am driven to the conclusion, using that God-given instinct, that God comes to us without ‘pushing’ Himself onto us – not through force, but seeking our acceptance of Him. He comes like the gentle breeze, not in the ‘earthquake’, ‘wind’ or ‘fire’. He is immensely patient, waiting and waiting, for us to find Him, and then to feel secure in his Love. We do not really need to run away from him, even though – through guilt – we may feel like it sometimes. As we now come to Advent, to the time when we await his coming, let us grasp the realities of our situation – my situation, and that of the whole of humanity – and, calmly, let him come to fill our lives with his peace. 

As we do so, the anecdotes annotated at the start of this blog, are also relevant. Our own personal lives are deeply affected by what goes on around us – and even much farther afield. There, too, God can help us to live in Him, in joy and in peace, because we can pray for those less fortunate than ourselves; we can play our part in acting for the good of all, in practical ways – like supporting everything that points to unity, rather than division – and we can even offer our small contributions, in money, or in kind, to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

The Desolata of Michelangelo

In November, each year, we remember all those who have passed on before us. November is known as the ‘Month of the Dead’, but actually, it should, more appropriately, be called the ‘Month of the Living’, because we know that, those who have gone before us, are not in an empty void for ever. I would rather call it the ‘Month of All Saints’! Those who have died are truly alive, if in union with God, for the life we have been living on this earth, is a preparation for the life to come, the life of pure, and total, happiness in heaven, for which people yearn. This assertion is based on our faith, but it is faith that, at one and the same time, is also knowledge – not in the sense of things we see – like material things, but in the sense ephemeral qualities such as love and wisdom; we all know what they are, though we cannot see them with our eyes.  There are many other qualities like admiration, compassion, awe in the presence of things much greater than ourselves and grief; all of these are very real to us, and truly, we know them to be real – yet invisible.

Photo of the Michelangelo ‘Pieta’ 

To move on, the significance of that heart-breaking moment when Mary was with her dead Son, at the foot of the Cross, came back to me last Sunday, when, in the ‘Readings’, we thought about the ‘End of the World’. We have all, from time to time, reflected on that Crucifixion scene and ‘observed’ the fullness of life ‘snuffed out’ – out of love for us – together with the utter beauty and simplicity of grief, an experience that all human beings face. Yet, look at the face of Mary!


Photo of a Close-up of Mary’s Face 

She is lost in her own thoughts and grief – how could she be otherwise? But, in that very same face, the genius of Michelangelo has ‘captured’ her with a wonderful sense of divine serenity. Furthermore, she looks younger than her son, Jesus, and, even if you take into account the terrible sufferings throughout his Passion and death, nonetheless Mary would have been roughly fifty years of age, given that Jesus died at three and thirty. Michelangelo had a vast spiritual and theological knowledge; quite deliberately, he would have sculpted his statue to make her look young. As Jesus is the one in whom all human beings die to sin – and thence to ‘light’ – so this death of Jesus and his placement in the arms of his beloved mother, connects with our death and our human grieving; it links with us, and our experiences and feelings. I think it shows that in every circumstance of life, if we remain in God, then ‘Hope Springs Eternal’. That is what ‘youth’ is about and our world, compared to the God who exists before all time, is a young, vulnerable offshoot; yet despite all the vulnerability and limitations – including sinfulness and evil – we have a sure sign of hope that nothing can destroy, as long as we ‘abide in Him, and He abides in us’.

Now, in contrast, I invite you to look at how Michelangelo portrays despair; the contrast between Mary’s serenity – in grief – and despair is very marked; the two are ‘poles apart’ And, despair inevitably is the fate of one who refuses to abide in God, thinking he, or she, can go it alone.


Picture of the Damned going to Hell in the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo 

Tradition has it that, of all the disciples of Jesus, Mary, his Mother, did not need Jesus appearing to her, immediately after the Resurrection, as he did to Mary Magdalene, for instance.  This was because she ‘knew’ in her heart that, despite the dreadful tragedy she had experienced at the foot of the cross, all would be well. She lived, and experienced, what we now call the theological virtues of perfect faith, hope and love.  These ‘perfect virtues’ are gifts from God to a person, impossible to achieve without the help of God himself. Ourselves alone, we cannot – without divine help – achieve these qualities.

In conversation with a parishioner, whose husband died, very suddenly, last week, she told me in her sorrow that, when the paramedics arrived and tried their best to resuscitate him, his arm just ‘flopped’;  in her view, the life in her husband had already ‘gone’. This last action of the body, as death takes hold, is so well portrayed in the sculpture, below. Again, Michelangelo has caught, in the marble he worked so marvellously, a moment that is ‘eternal’. Each of us – in our own way – can read into this beautiful work of art, many different reactions’.


Picture of Jesus Truly Dead in the Lap of Mary 

Still in November, the Parish has ‘enjoyed’ two liturgies for those of our community who have died; many of them, I am sure, have achieved high levels of holiness. The first was the 11.00am Mass on the first Sunday of November, and the second – not a Mass but a ‘Service of Light, Song, Remembrance and Thanksgiving’ – embraced words of hope from the scriptures, to envelop us; projected photographs of those who have died in the past two years, brought back for a time, our beloved memories of them. At both liturgies, there was a sense of enormous grief, at the loss of those we have loved. This sense of grief happens for believers and unbelievers alike. On this note, I sometimes wonder whether the Christian actually feels more grief, than the person with no faith.  I question this, precisely, because the Christian has allowed the human ‘essence’, fully to develop and grow, largely because there is small reason to be afraid of any hurt we cannot bear. Without that knowledge, the hurt could be too much for some, and, in that regard, they may then protect themselves by not allowing themselves to become too close to another, as their loss would be so painful.

I make no apology for my essay on the subject of November and its timeless association with ‘Those Who Have Died’, because, as I said earlier, on the ‘other side of the coin’ there is hope, there is light, there is sainthood. This means that we can always reflect on our ‘everlasting’ and ‘youthful’ hope in the ‘Light of the World’ – Jesus – portrayed by the Paschal Candle, in any Church. Here, below, is shown the Easter candle from St. Mary’s in Leyland, together with the candles lighted at the service, this week, when people came to be in communion, with those that have gone before us, and whom we all remembered, before God, knowing they too will be in communion with us: each little candle shines a light for each and every one of them – lighting our way to them – and their way to us.

Picture of the Paschal Candle and Smaller Candles on the Altar 

I conclude with the very famous prayer of the now Blessed, Cardinal Newman; this beautiful prayer is printed on the memorial card, of my mother, now already resting in Christ, for 14 years. It was he who helped her to take the step to enter into full communion with our Church.  Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us. 


Prayer of Cardinal Newman

Chiara’s Loppiano

Loppiano, not far from Florence, in Italy’s Province of Tuscany, is a very special place; it is a ‘little town’ in which all the inhabitants are trying to live out the Gospel, with especial regard for Jesus’ ‘new commandment’. This unique ‘way of life’ delivers wonderful blessings and a very special atmosphere – a tone which is heaven-like – but one in which feet ‘remain on the ground’. Loppiano is a ‘real’ town, where the inhabitants go to work to earn their daily bread, where there are industries based on a ‘new’ way of running a business under the ‘umbrella’ of the generic title, ‘An Economy of Communion’; it has a Church for all to worship and even a small university for graduates. 


                                           Front and Side View of the Church at Loppiano

But, there is much, much, more to experience. It is organised and run by the Focolare Movement – founded by Chiara Lubich, and her first companions – a ‘new’ experiment in living that has now been in existence for sixty-seven years.

Here in Loppiano, I have been staying on holiday. My vacation here has been an exceptional one, rather more ‘monastic’, externally, than usual, and consisting largely of doing very simple things – but doing them well and with great enjoyment. Joy is a very much a characteristic of Loppiano. God is very close.

(1)  Art work showing many different Religious Orders under the mantle of Mary in the House for the Religious, Loppiano.  (2)  Two Marist Brothers, Missionary of Mary Immaculate, Missionary of Mary Star of the morning, Brother of St Gabriel, Salesian, Franciscan & an Ampleforth monk at the Loppiano school for Religious  

The 900, or so, inhabitants live in their own communities and consist mainly of lay people from the five continents of the world. Some are here on a ‘permanent’ basis, as this provides for continuity to the town. Others are here for just a short time, and these, largely, come to study at the Loppiano School.  You might ask what it is they have come to learn. The answer lies in the one word ‘UNITY’ – that unity which is at the ‘heart’ of the Gospel. Also, you may ask: “Who are the teachers?” In the Gospel, Jesus said you should call no one your teacher except the Christ!  Loppiano does not contradict the Gospel, for here, it is Jesus who is the teacher – helped by those ‘permanent’ members of the community and who have that longer experience of this life of unity, and who are at the service of all who come for a shorter stay. But then, all the others ‘muck in’ and help as well!

Some of the new students at Loppiano Nov 2010 – and – Citizens getting ready for Mass Nov 2010 

It may sound arrogant to say that Jesus is the teacher; however that is the aim, the desire and the reality of all who live here – to live out the ‘New Commandment’, and so have that ‘real’ living experience of what Jesus said, (according to St. Matthew’s Gospel, 18; 20): “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. Rather than arrogant, it is ‘awe-inspiring’ to realise that, here in this small Tuscany town, it is the Lord, himself, who is guiding everything.

My holiday abode is in the house dedicated to men in religious life. Those religious who are here, permanently, and those who come for a few months, go to work each day so as to maintain themselves. As I write, there are eight of us in house, but I am here for just two weeks. Nevertheless, I have been joining in with them, as a friend on holiday, sharing their rhythm of life, meals, the cleaning of the house, prayers, and the common meditations, as far as possible. As the ‘law’ under which we live is the Gospel, we do our best to live it with each other, and in practice, it is a most enjoyable experience. All of us are aware that ‘heart’ of the Gospel is ‘Love’! The Latin text “Ubi amor et caritas Deus ibi est” (where there is love and charity, there is God) is written above the door of St. Mary’s Presbytery in Leyland; and God who is love is also joy. This ought to be the characteristic of every Christian community – including a parish – for Jesus said, at the time he emphasised that his mission was unity: “I speak these things in the world so that they can have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17: 13).

It would be helpful, perhaps, to explain those others who find themselves here in town and at the school of Loppiano. I can assure you, here you would find just about every kind of person. Families, who live in their own houses, mingle with other families during their learning time here. There are young people, late teens in age, or above, who live and share together. There are other young men and women, in their 20’s or 30’s, who feel the vocation to dedicate themselves to God, for life, with vows of celibacy, as promoters of unity, and they remain in the world of work. Parishioners of St. Mary’s might have met these ‘Focolarini’ who live, nearby, in Liverpool. There are young priests and seminarians, about twenty in total, nuns, and men and women – usually married, but not necessarily so – who wish to live in the world, and work for unity, as people of the world.

(1) Young married man at work: paint shop (2) Some of the young workers in the carpentry shop (3) Finished products, cots and furniture 

As far as is possible, all the different groups go to work each day.  However, mums may have to look after the children while dad goes to work, or vice-versa; there are other such-like provisos. Thus everyone mixes, naturally, with everyone during the day, but each has their own distinct living space and home life. Then, at certain times, the whole town comes together for the celebration of Mass, or for the various meetings of the different groups. It goes without saying that, in various ways, all are involved with the Focolare Movement, and last Sunday week, there was an up-dating on how the Focolare Movement is responding to what God wants of it, in the special times in which we now live. Again, the whole town was present.

 (1) Three Muslim imams living in Italy.  (2)  Young Muslim girl presenter, and, (3) Muslim and Christian girls from Verona sharing at experience of dialogue 

Last Sunday, there was something special – and unusual – for those able to attend, consisting of a meeting for dialogue between Muslims and Christians, in Italy, the intention being to promote dialogue, where there is often deep division. The event was open to the whole of Italy, and was the first meeting of its kind – organised by Muslims who know, and love, this life of unity, together with their Christian ‘Focolare’ counterparts. I discovered that this meeting had been in the planning for 20 years! I must say, it was wonderful to be here, by chance so to speak, and see all these Christians and Muslims together as ‘one family’. They came from the north and south of Italy, by the coach-load, about 400 in total. Ironic it may be that, since that meeting, terrorists have perpetrated the invasion of a Syrian Catholic Church, in Iraq, resulting in the deaths of some 58 people, including three priests. This is not the norm, for the way Christians and Muslims relate to each other – whatever the media may say; in most places, Christians and Muslims have lived, side by side and in peace with each other, for centuries.

Loppiano is an expression of the life of Church; it formulates the very best experience I have had, of what the post Vatican 2 Church is all about. It is forward-looking; God is very much at the centre of things; in totality, it seems a fulfilment of the famous ‘wise scribe’ in the Gospel, who could value both the old things, and the new.

My readers might ask what, then, is the common language, given that the population is so ‘international’. As Loppiano is situated in Italy, the language of ordinary conversation is Italian, a language that I happened to learn before joining Ampleforth, at the age of 18. For those who do not speak Italian, there are ‘simultaneous translations’, though it is much better to be able to speak Italian. Those who come here ‘to school’ often spend the first months learning Italian, and find this very much to their advantage.

My time spent here has made me reflect, once more, on the importance of having that ‘something more’, to sustain the Christian life we try to live as priests, and people, in our Parish of St. Mary’s. Certainly, my ‘Loppiano experience’ – short I know – nevertheless, has ‘rooted’ me more on my vocation, and for that, I thank God. We all need help – priests, monks and people – and, although this experience may not be for everyone, it is, I feel, one that it is well worth the knowledge