Archive for January, 2011

You’re A Blessing For Me

The evening (and night) of Thursday, 20th January was very cold, indeed, temperatures falling to well below freezing – and with fog to make matters worse.  On this evening, the main event of the ‘Churches Together In Leyland’, ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’ was to be held here in St. Mary’s. The ‘One Voice Choir’ – an ecumenical choir made up of Christians from the main denominations – was to be present and they always give a great ‘boost’ to every celebration. Those who attended were resolute members of the different congregations, braving the cold, as even the Church was not warm enough; our enormous building, in certain damp conditions, can take heat ‘poured’ into it all day long, and still feel cold. 

In complete contrast, was the ‘warmth’ of the liturgy that had been prepared by members of different Christian groups in Jerusalem, and which took on a ‘Spirit’ of its own, with the support of all who were present.  Its theme was ‘All things in common’. 


All replied with conviction:  THE EARTH, SEA AND SKY ARE YOURS

Your presence is within and without us: IN THIS PLACE AND EVERY PLACE

Every atom is full of your energy: EVERY FACE CARRIES YOUR IMAGE. 

The singing was robust, and joyful, with the Choir leading the congregation; then, after listening to God’s Word, and viewing slides depicting the many activities of the ‘Churches Together in Leyland’, we came to the sermon.


The Holy Spirit hovers! 

By the gift of God, the Methodist Minister and myself, a Catholic priest, had got together to plan this ‘important’ part. Planning had not been easy because both of us are busy people, but ‘fortune favours those who try’ and fortuitously we met on the previous Tuesday, at the United Reformed Church, noontime Unity Service!  Seated afterwards, with a delicious bowl of home made soup, we came up with the idea that, briefly, we would talk about the ‘blessing’ that the other’s Church was – for each of us. 

However, overnight, a doubt was to appear in our plan. What about the Anglican, URC, and House Churches* present?  We could not leave them out – but, how could we include them? Somehow, from our joy and love with each other, we came up with the idea that the congregation could give the sermon, each to one another, by each person, turning to their neighbour, and sharing the ‘blessing’ another Church was for them. 

Outside it was freezing cold, but inside it was a great and real pleasure to experience the warmth – and strength – of our unity, as Christians, to hear the joyful murmur of conversation, for a few moments around the Church, as people took up this exercise – showing that ‘Each Church Is A Blessing For The Other’. Without referring to the Catholic Church – as others should speak about that – I can say that, for me, the Methodist Church is a blessing by its mark of ‘seeking holiness’, and in its devotions. The Anglican Church, for me, is a blessing for somehow managing to retain the elusive, but central quality, of ‘Englishness’ – expressed in its ceremonies and its choral music. The United Reformed Church is, for me, a blessing in the evident presence of Jesus among the people, in their love and concern for others; and the House Churches* (or equivalent) often have the mark of freshness and zeal, that you feel in the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ in the first ‘Church of Jerusalem’. In passing, the Methodist minister included in the ‘Blessing of the Catholic Church’, for him, had been the visit of Pope Benedict, to Britain in September 2010. It touched me, deeply, that a Protestant should express himself in that way. 

Many people commented on the beauty of the service: it had been prepared, so carefully, by our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem; with Jesus present among us, and with his Holy Spirit, we added to the love, so evident in the prepared text in front of us.


 Many but united!

All this makes me think above, and beyond, the Ecumenical Service. There is a song, I know, that has as a refrain, “You’re a gift for me, and you are a gift for me”. This refers, not to other Churches, but to other individual people and, it is true. The other is a ‘gift for me’, because the other, in all his, or her, otherness, has something I do not have. I do not need to force the other into my own mould, nor does he, or she, have to force me into theirs. We can be complementary, united and different, like the three Persons in the Holy Trinity, about which, one true thing we can say is that God the Father is not God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is neither God the Father nor God the Son, and yet they are – All ThreeOne God

What a wonderful difference it would make, to know that our attitude to the other, is that they are not a threat, not a problem, not a person to be absorbed into me, or to be rejected, but a ‘gift’ in their ‘otherness’. This is true, even if the other person is utterly different, by temperament and culture, and it provides a path to liberation, to think like that. 

We could begin to take on a different attitude of mind – if the cap fits!


If the cap fits! 

(* House Churches are more informal Churches; they exist all over England. People come together in an informal way, and praise God, read the scriptures, often celebrate a ‘breaking of bread’. They may or may not have a minister (as I understand it). They could meet in peoples’ houses; often they meet in local community halls or schools.)


Presently, we find ourselves in the ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’. The main theme for the week is taken from a passage in the ‘Acts of the Apostles’: ‘Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.(Acts 4:32). The theme for today, the third day of prayer, is ‘Sharing’. Briefly, here are some reflections on the subject of ‘sharing’

I think it is important, perhaps, to take another look at the above quotation. When we think of the meanings within this rather extraordinary statement, what would normally come to mind would be the money and goods of those first Christians. To share all that we possess – with others – is an amazing thing.  In the time of Communism, people used to say that the ‘first Communists’ were the ‘first Christians’. In the same chapter of ‘Acts’, it states: 

‘There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet and it was distributed to each as any had need.’ (Acts 4: 34-35).  

However, the phrase ‘everything they owned’, takes my mind to things much deeper than possessions – money, property and the like – and in promoting this idea, I am thinking of Pope John Paul II, when he was dying.



His final illness was the last thing he ‘owned’. During those final, last weeks of March 2005, through to the date of his death, in the evening of Saturday 2nd April, he did not claim his dying as ‘private, only unto himself’; he allowed the whole world to be with him in his passing, and this gave being to a great outpouring of love. Now, I hasten to assure you this was not showmanship; rather, it was very much in line with the spirit of the Act of the Apostles, Chapter 4. The BBC put it like this: 

The Pope’s death was immediately announced to the crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square. The news was met with long applause, an Italian sign of respect, followed by several minutes of silence as the crowd took in the news. “Our Holy Father John Paul has returned to the house of the Father,” senior Vatican official, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, said.

And, Peter Kearney, the Director of the Catholic Media Office, Glasgow, wrote the following: 

“In a very special way he served, and taught, as he approached death. His illnesses and infirmities gave him a different way of preaching, as he was constantly exposed to the world in all his weakness. He said even 10 years ago: “The Pope must suffer, so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare for the future”. John Paul II prepared for that future, that glorious future of eternal life with Our Father in Heaven, in his youth and in his old age, in the vitality of his early manhood, and the weaknesses of his many physical afflictions in old age.”



And, according to the Internet’s ‘Wikipediea’: 

Pope John Paul’s funeral brought together the single largest gathering in history of heads of state outside the United Nations, surpassing the funerals of Winston Churchill (1965) and Josip Broz Tito (1980). Four kings, five queens, at least 70 presidents and prime ministers, and more than 14 leaders of other religions attended, alongside the faithful. It is likely to have been the largest single gathering of Christianity in history, with numbers estimated in excess of four million mourners gathering in Rome.

I think it is often the case that people are not very ‘open’ about what they do – even in families. We hesitate and don’t like to ‘share’, in that ‘inner-most’ sense, and this must be linked to a fundamental insecurity and lack of trust in those around us. But, what about those around us – the other ‘side of the coin’; does this not herald a call for the rest of us to be trustworthy? That the rest of us – all of us – should be safe to trust; is that a possibility, or just a dream? At least, we could make a start among those of our own circle, in family, among friends, even at work (where appropriate). Perhaps, we could learn from Pope John Paul II and not privatise our lives, too much. So often, we can be ‘locked’ into an individualistic viewpoint of ourselves – and others – much to our own harm. In fact, this attitude of secretive protection is one that business often fosters, (or should the word be ‘festers’): ‘we mustn’t let the rivals know how we go about things, in case we lose our edge over them’. Self-centredness will convince us and make us think we will be ‘lost in the herd’ when we share, and thus we will lose our individuality. However, it is not certain that this will happen. With others, sharing means we can benefit from what they have to offer – things that we do not have – and when we share, others benefit from the things we can give – things that they do not have. 

And so, I return to the cause for Christian Unity! Here too, our individualism, our own way of thinking, our inability to share, could prevent us being able, really, to listen to the other Christian person of another Church, who happens to have a different point of view. Furthermore, the other – ‘locked’ in the same ‘trap’ – will be unable to listen to us. So it is that misunderstandings and prejudices grow. Thanks be to God, that we live in the age of the ‘Ecumenical Movement’, a time when there is a positive convergence, among Christians of different groups, to dialogue and to share. 

Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Pope John Paul II is due to be beatified on 1st May 2011!


Our Lady – Undoer of Knots

I thought I had just about seen, or prayed, most of the beautiful accolades we give to Our Blessed Lady.  But, life is full of surprises and, often it is said, that one can learn something new every day.  Looking back over my life, I often refer to back the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the many lovely praises sung in that prayer: Mother of God, Mother of Christ, Mother most pure, Mother most chaste, Virgin most venerable, Virgin most renowned, Mirror of justice, Seat of wisdom, Mystical rose, Gate of Heaven … …  the list of wonderful names goes on and on.  That’s where I was – until last week – when the actions of a friend pointed my eyes in a new direction, to one I had never seen before – Our Lady, Undoer of Knots’.



The above, rather fascinating painting, pertaining to this devotion to Our Lady has been venerated in St. Peter am Perlach Church, Augsburgh, Bavaria, since at least 1700. The painting’s origins are not absolutely certain.  Some ‘Internet’ authorities put its origins as unknown.  However, it is authenticated by others as the work of an artist named Johann Melchior Georg Schmittdner, apparently inspired by a meditation made by St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, who was martyred in 202.  St. Iraneus described his meditation as follows: 

“Eve, by her disobedience, tied the knot of disgrace for the human race; to the contrary, Mary, by her obedience, undid it.” 

According to this more definitive authentication, devotions became known in the 18th century, originally for help in a difficult marriage. In the early 17th century, a noble couple were on the brink of divorce, and their priest prayed before Our Lady of Victory, holding up a ribbon (symbolic of the ribbon placed over the hands of a bridal couple) praying that all the ‘knots’ in the marriage might be untangled, and the marriage was saved.  Some years later, Hieronymus Ambrosius Langenmantel (1666-1709), a priest relative of theirs, who lived in Augsburg, commissioned this painting, ‘Our Lady Undoer of Knots’, for a family altar.  Of course, today’s common sense dictates that such devotion goes way beyond marital problems, and can be used in asking for help in any kind of crisis.

Observers have opined that the ribbon represents our lives; the knots represent the difficulties, sinful inclinations, addictions, interpersonal issues, and general struggles that affect our lives. Clearly, the painting tells us that Mary can come to our aid in these struggles and circumstances, if we seek her help. What can seem incapable of solution, to us, must be simple handiwork to the Mother of God – a loving Mother helping her children as loving mothers everywhere are wont to do every day. It must follow that, if we ask Mary – as our mediator – to help us, in heartfelt humility, trust, and faith, and have the same attitude to God, we may be sure that she will help us untangle, in some way, the struggles of our lives.” 



And, there we have it – Mary, Undoer of Knots! Now that’s a ‘new’ title for her! Please, Mary, help when there is no way out! In fact, all this it is the subject of novena pamphlets and booklets that explain the image of Mary with a crown of twelve stars and a fluttering blue mantle. Around her are the angels. Beneath her feet is the serpent – the one who ensnares and entangles.  “Knots are original sin and its consequences in all areas of family, work, and community life,” according to the pamphlets. In the painting, we see that while one angel hands the Blessed Mother a knotted ribbon, another to her right is taking the untangled part and perhaps preparing to return to earth below with it.  It goes on to describe the ribbon as having seven knots, each of these having meanings as follows: 

1st Knot: Our temptations – Please, Mary, Protect us.

2nd Knot: Our sins – Please, Mary, deliver us.

3rd Knot: our distresses – Please, Mary, succour us.

4th Knot: Our sorrows – Please, Mary, Comfort us.

5th Knot: Our fears – Please, Mary, Encourage us.

6th Knot: Our illnesses – Please, Mary, Alleviate us.

7th Knot: Our weaknesses – Please, Mary, Strengthen us.

As Mary once said at a very famous apparition site, “In prayer you shall perceive the greatest joy — and the way out of every situation that has no exit.”  Think of those words. Don’t you often find yourself in a situation that “has no exit”? How many times have you run into problems that seem to offer no positive outcome, got yourself into a corner, with no escape?  The point is that when we invoke Mary’s help, she untangles our ‘knots’.

In my view, I see all this to be a mysterious and quite beautiful image of Our Blessed Lady.  Very often, we think of the ‘knots’ in our lives as present, troubling, situations, but they also may well be problems we have had for years, perhaps deep hurts between husband and wife, anger, resentment, sinful inclinations, the absence of peace and joy at home.  A ‘knot’ can be a son addicted to drugs. It can be alcoholism. It can be guilt. It can be fear or depression or unemployment.  It can be many things – and all of them trouble.  But, this, apparently, is where Mary Undoer (or ‘untier’) of Knots comes in.  The point is that Mary comes to our aid in many, many different circumstances.











God Writes Straight With Crooked Lines

In the ‘old’ days, today would have been the feast of the Epiphany – the very important feast that celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Magi.  However, despite the movement of the feast to the previous Sunday, we are still, spiritually, under the ‘banners and flags’ of the ‘Three Wise Men’ as they journey the thousand miles to pay homage to the new born ‘King of the Jews’ – a journey that is most relevant to us today.  

For one thing, many of us find that we live in very complex situations just as did the three Magi. Their learning told them that the star they followed was a sign of something very special, but they faced a hazardous journey. Presumably, they travelled as part of a large ‘caravan’: modern cinema portrays them as rich and learned, but even so, they still had to outwit the evil King Herod, who was no less than a murdering tyrant, insanely jealous and afraid of any hint or challenge to his privileged position. There is a lovely extract from St. Matthew’s Gospel that points to their skill: 

“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him bring me word so that I may go and pay him homage. Whey they had heard the King, they set out….” (Mt. 2: 7-8)


Herod Meets with the Three Wise Men 

All too often, our ‘complexities’ arise because of the choices we make, always within the context of our lives and relationships and given the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ sides of so many of our experiences. Take for instance the choices that lead to alcohol and/or drug addiction; take wanton decisions concerned with the misuse of the internet, and the results of such decisions; take our lazy habits of life and the effects of such habits on our lives and on those around us; takes decisions that lead to all sorts of criminal behaviour. In fact, one could take as a ‘catch-all’ for such decisions, the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, all of which means, essentially, that we push God and the good of our neighbour to one side and concentrate on self and our own self-serving desires.  What we most often fail to realise is that such actions often result in our own self-destruction. But, to return to the Magi, they were ‘good’ men and their complexities, largely, came from the politics and personalities involved; in the same way, we, too, might be affected by complex situations and people – by the decisions made by others.  To many, it must appear that the position is hopeless.  Thank God, it is not! 

God can sort out the worst situations we experience – those we find so impossible to unravel – if only we let Him. We may be ‘locked in’ by the guilt of what we have done; we may have reached an impasse in the relationships we have entered; we may even be seriously ill and find the fear of dying so serious we cannot even speak of it. If you put your minds to it, it is easy to envisage a multitude of dire situations and their causes. For my part, I am grateful to have been able to accompany people in many such circumstances as they have journeyed through life, but I also know that, at the end of their journey, they have found the very same treasure that the Three Wise Men found – Love Incarnate – within, and around them. 

I have often heard it said that ‘nothing is impossible’ to God. My novice master told us all in the noviciate at Ampleforth that ‘God can write straight with crooked lines’. That may give us a different idea of God. Just today, somebody asked me; “What is the only thing God cannot do?” I did not know, and so he explained; “God cannot stop loving each person in this world – even me!” 

The lesson, I think, in all of this, teaches us to follow the example of the Three Wise Men; we should continue the journey we are making in life – perhaps, much longer than a thousand miles – with many dangers and pitfalls along the way, then to discover the treasure we are seeking: God and his love. God provides the solution – the ONLY solution! However, controversially, we should not assume we will find God by our own efforts: a dying man, frightened, told me that his experience of God was that it took time to know Him: He reveals himself slowly, but surely, and then a fuller peace comes. Truly, I marvelled whenever I met this man as he lay dying, because I knew his complex life, and how great a peace he achieved. In the end, he longed to receive the Lord, in Holy Communion, as often as he could. His last words after receiving Viaticum, two hours before he died, were: “Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” I would hope those words might be mine, when it is my turn to depart this life, words spoken in gratitude and love for God, for His many gifts to me, and above all, his merciful love. 

My conclusion might prompt some to ask how am I to make ‘salt’ of all this ‘sand’. Life often puts seemingly insurmountable difficulties in our way.  How can I continue?  Ultimately, God asks the question and provides the answer.  Trust in Him and His infinite love and He will hold our hand along the way, carrying us where need be.  Do not be afraid, for as I said at the start, ‘God can write straight with crooked lines’.