Archive for April, 2011

Things In Proportion


‘For your love is better than life, my lips will speak your praise.

So I will bless you all my life, in your name I will lift up my hands.’ (Psalm 62 (63))

Each day during Easter week, we say these beautiful words, as they are, from the first Sunday Psalm for Morning Prayer. Sunday is the day of the ‘Resurrection’ each week of the year, a great feast day for those who want to follow Jesus, and that is what we celebrate each and every day in the week following Easter Sunday, in what is termed the Octave of Easter. Each day of the 8-day octave is a ‘Sunday’; how perfectly delightful! 

In the quotation from the Psalm, ‘love that is (more important) better than life’ does not imply that we should not love life, and to the full. Rather it gives clarity to the sacrifice that the English martyrs made when they, willingly, went to the scaffold at the time of the English Reformation, rather than deny their faith in the Mass and the central position of the Papacy.  They loved life, but this did not deter them from giving it up for love. 

The picture, above, is one that is a part of a ‘PowerPoint’ presentation on the St. Mary’s Website, sending out Easter greetings. A colleague, who works with ‘teeming’ regularity in the Priory House, remarked to me that this picture affected him a lot, largely because, when we look from ‘up there’  i.e. from the view of the Risen Lord, with whom we are united, our difficulties – according to the Lord’s own testimony – seem very different. The task before us is to remain up there, in Jesus, and with Him, at the right hand of the Father. We often prefer to ‘lick the wounds’ of life – whatever they may be – at ground level, and from that viewpoint, things can lose their proportion.

My friend and colleague went on to say he wondered where this photograph came from, as it is a bit ‘scary’ when you look at it, especially as the overhanging rock seems to have a fault in it. Here, I think, is a good image of the trust we should have in God, and His Love, especially at Easter time. It is not everyone, however, who could do what that young man is doing; most would hesitate, I imagine, before chancing one’s life, walking to, and sitting in, such a precarious position.  Talk about ‘vertigo’!

God’s love is ‘better than life’ itself, according to psalm 62 (63). When we realise this, we can then praise God all our lives, because things are rightly in proportion.

(Unfortunately, in sending out this blog by e-mail, ‘Word Press’ distorts the original formatting of the document.  Readers are, therefore, advised to visit the website should they wish to read it in its intended format).



The Passion in 2011

The effects of what Jesus did in Holy Week are powerful. It was a rather strange experience for me to watch a recent TV documentary, in which the subject matter was all concerned with the future of the Christian Churches in Britain; Ann Widdecombe was the programme’s presenter. There were interviews with young people, and it was astounding to hear some 20 to 30 year old ‘girls’, in particular, saying their number one priority was themselves – and what they wanted to do in life. To me, this came across as something akin to pure selfishness. Anything that approached or sounded like the Gospel ‘maxim’, “He who loses his life will save it” was significantly absent. Since the programme, I met with a friend who is an alcoholic; he came to chat, and at the time he was quite the worse for drink. He was not looking for money – or food. What he wanted was to sit and converse, and, especially, to share a worry he was carrying, in that his friends – all of whom are also alcoholics – are talking about taking their own lives. They are, in his words, ‘fed up’ with life as they find it and so they ask themselves the question: “Why live?” My young friend thought the others were being stupid and that you should never think about taking your own life. In his drunken state, he seemed quite sensible, but, obviously, the thought never occurred to him, that to self-indulge in alcohol – as with any of today’s addictions – is also putting ‘self’ first, regardless of whatever consequences. 

I tried to show him that the only way to get out of his alcoholic ‘trap’ was to live, not for self, but for the good and benefit of others, to put self-centredness out, and accept help to overcome his addiction and his homelessness. “Oh yes!” he said; he would like to do that; he accepted that he needed help and would welcome it.  He also said that, if somebody was in need, he would always try to help them with money to buy food, or a drink. All this made me think how desperately important it is, to find help and support – practical support – for people who cannot cope. This man needs someone he trusts, someone he can like and respect, to help him keep any lodgings he may acquire in good condition. He also needs help to budget his money, to guide him in his personal hygiene, how to cook, wash his clothes, and in many other practical things. His present circumstances leave me wondering, at the wonderful contradictions we human beings carry within us!

Ecce Homo – Pilate Presents the Scourged Jesus to the Crowd – (Antonio Ciseri 1821 – 91)

Jesus was utterly unselfish in the giving of himself, out of love for all humanity, and this he clearly demonstrated by means of his unbearable suffering and ignominious death on the cross. For me, one of the greatest signs of God’s presence, in Jesus, is in the silence Jesus maintained before Pontius Pilate, and throughout the Passion story. Only a very strong person remains silent, and is not provoked to react in the face of such mountainous pressure. Jesus could have called on the legions of angels in heaven, to help him at any time; however, he did not reply to Pilate, and from the cross, refused to come down, despite the taunts of those who jeered at him. 

The Fathers of the Church had their own quite original way of meditating on the Passion and Death of Jesus. They realised the truth, that what Jesus did, was unique, and that what Jesus endured provides the redeeming cause of our salvation. At the same time, in a very small way, the passion happens in our lives. We mere mortals do not save the world; Jesus has done that already, but we can make a tiny contribution to its saving. Just as a grain of sand joins with others to create a desert, so our contribution, perhaps as small as a grain of sand, can do the same. A desert is nothing more than masses and masses of sand grains! On the Stations of the Cross in St. Mary’s, the metal that Arthur Dooley used shows encrustations of bits of metal on the body of Jesus. I like to think of these as our human involvement, in the sufferings and death of Jesus.

Icon of St. Gregory Nazianzen

St. Gregory Nazianzen (325-390 AD), realised that, even in our own lives – in our own times – we could re-live the characters that were part of the Passion story: 

“Let us accept everything literally, let us imitate the passion by our sufferings, let us reverence the blood by our blood, let us be eager to climb the cross. 

If you are Simon of Cyrene, take up the cross and follow. 

If you are crucified with him as a robber, have the honesty to acknowledge God. If he was numbered among the transgressors because of you and your sin, you must become righteous because of him. Adore him who hung upon the cross through your fault; and while he is hanging there, draw some advantage even from your own wickedness; buy salvation by his death, enter paradise with Jesus and learn what is the extent of your deprivation. 

If you are Joseph of Arimathea, ask the executioner for the body: make your own the expiation of the world. 

If you are Nicodemus, the man who served God by night, prepare him for burial with perfumes. 

If you are one, or other Mary, or Salome or Joanna, shed tears in the early morning. Be the first to see the stone removed, and perhaps the angels too, and even Jesus himself.” 

For my own part, I have, so often, seen God acting in power, because of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, coupled with the Gift of the Holy Spirit. One year, during Holy Week, we had the usual penance service, followed by Confessions. I remember a lady came, with her granddaughter, and both wanted Reconciliation together. I found this request not ideal, even though it could be allowed, in some circumstances. In the end, they did separate, but not before the grandmother told me her ‘tale of woe’. Her daughter – mother of the girl who accompanied her – was utterly inadequate, suffering from severe addiction problems and in a state of constant distress. Furthermore, it became apparent she had been suffering from such problems for a very long time, and, as a result, she – the grandmother – had failed to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation for 20 years. She was ‘terrified’ at the very thought of ‘going to confession’, yet, when reconciliation was concluded, she could not at first believe, through tears of joy, that all her sins – her many sins – had been forgiven; then was the power of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection most clearly seen. It was also a perfect example of the Passion and Resurrection narrative, being played out in the lives of ordinary – people just like us. That day, I saw a ‘resurrection’ take place before my own eyes. 

(Unfortunately, in sending out this blog by e-mail, ‘Word Press’ distorts the original formatting of the document.  Readers are, therefore, advised to visit the website should they wish to read it in its intended format).

Prayer With Others

Monks regularly pray together in the Divine Office. At Ampleforth, we pray formally six times together on most days, including the celebration of Mass. With this background, you would think that it would be easy for men, who pray daily together in a formal way, to pray together, informally, as other issues arise and when monks meet up with each other; perhaps some do!  But, this is not within my experience. Strangely, it is not easy, for instance, to say to a brother monk: “We have a problem here; let us pray about it together.”  We would often discuss the problem and try to think of a solution; certainly, we would try to support, and help each other as best we could, and in so far as that was possible.  But Pray?

The Monks in Prayer Together at Ampleforth 

The causes of this anomalous situation maybe numerous and varied, but one thing comes to mind. Ritual, like anything ‘formal’ does not allow people necessarily to come to know, appreciate or ‘belong to each other’, in that ‘close’ way taught by Jesus to his disciples. To follow Jesus’ way, that ‘inner spirit’ needs to engendered and nurtured, and formality does not necessarily achieve this. An analogy, for parishioners, would be that attending Mass each Sunday may be more an external ritual, than an inner conversion – for the lay person – and even for the priest who presides at Mass. We need to go below the surface, go that ‘extra yard’ in order to experience that ‘inner’ change, a change very close to the true meaning of ‘repentance’ in the Gospel. 

It is true that, in any family, there may be stresses and strains in the relationships, and this can happen for various reasons; similarly, stresses and strains may affect ‘relationships’ and the good-will that brothers in religion can be expected to have.  Praying together is one thing. However, it could happen that circumstances render it impossible even to discuss a given situation, once communications have broken down. This is what life is like, in practice – for better, or worse! Objectively speaking, it is strange that monks take for granted praying with each other, in a structured and formal way, but find it more difficult, in a personal way, to pray together when there are simple – even more serious – needs. I would wager that few men and women, in religious life, find it easy to pray ‘informally’, with their fellows. 

 Putting all this on a whole new different footing, I remember one day talking with engaged couples, about God in married life. The married couple who led the sessions, talked about their experience of prayer together. They were, both, deeply committed Catholic Christians, regularly worshipping God, in Church on Sundays, and on some other days. They confessed that, when they were first married, they never prayed together; however, as time went on, and other good experiences came their way, they tentatively began to join in prayer. At first, they were embarrassed to pray together but, eventually, they went through a kind of ‘barrier’ and now they find it something natural, and an important part of their lives. In fact, they said that praying together was one, really beautiful, expression of their love for each other, and I found this easy to accept. 

Because of my involvement in the lay movement called the ‘Focolare Movement’, I have learned about praying, together, with others. When talking about the ‘Focolare’, it is important to bear in mind that the characteristic God gave to this particular movement is ‘unity’, and that is a gift that can be applicable to every kind of human association – and to all types of person. So, for instance, unity is needed in the work place, among artists, or politicians, teachers, or those in the medical profession. It is a gift to bishops, priests, those in religious life, young and old people, families, parishes, whole communities of Christians and so forth; indeed, it is gift of God to everyone. Unity is also important for those who belong to other religions, like Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews. I have met people falling into all of these categories, including atheists, and agnostics, who are associated with the ‘Focolare’. This spirit of unity attracts, and can be of great help, to all these different kinds of people.

One of the characteristic behavioural patterns, of those associated with the ‘Focolare’, is to pray with each other. In the Gospel, there are two verses that are particularly apposite to this: 

“Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt. 18: 19-20)

Jesus Among His Disciples

In this, it is important to note that, somehow, the culture that the ‘Focolare’ engenders’, enables people to pray together’ about the most simple, or very serious things, without any fuss or embarrassment. This last week, I have prayed for serious matters such as family situations, as well as less complicated, but still serious things, like the need to find a valuable camera, or a wallet containing credit cards and money. But usually, such prayers have been in company with lay people!

Three Men Praying

Once again, I ask, is that not rather a strange phenomenon?  All of this has been occupying my mind and, during this last week, the decision was made to pray, with fellow monks of my own community, outside our ‘formal’ prayer times. This has come as a blessing, for not only did we find the lost wallet and the valuable camera, but it seemed to ‘cement’ relationships. Self-analysis reveals that ‘formal’ prayer together was not enough, in my case, to begin the art of praying, informally and with conviction, in the company of my fellow monks. To be precise, embarrassment is apparently one of the problems; however, there are also aspects of seeming to be ‘holier than thou’, not wanting to ‘lose face’ or to be thought ‘soft-in-the-head’.  It is also very interesting to add that it has been lay people, who have taught me about praying with others, in this delightful, but informal, way. 

Fundamentally, it is important that Jesus, or God himself, becomes more ‘believable’ when you discover the power associated with praying together.  It may be something we should broach with those, with whom we are closely associated, and see what actually happens. 

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned, here, by all those of us who are priests. 

(Unfortunately, in sending out this blog by e-mail, ‘Word Press’ distorts the original formatting of the document.  Readers are, therefore, advised to visit the website should they wish to read it in its intended format). 

Amazing Grace

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.”


Jesus cures the man born blind

How often we are blind – not literally, like the man born blind, who we find in St. John’s Gospel (Chapter 9) – but blind to the goodness of God, and all that he represents, then, now, always.  We are blinded by our passions, by our culture, by our self-centred desires, by conforming to, (copying if you like), the ways-of-life of people around us.  John Newton wrote this autobiographical hymn, in 1773, as a clergyman, after leading a life as a young man that was utterly opposed to God, and his ways. He describes the change that occurred within his own self, as a cure of blindness.  Indeed, that is what it was, and no exaggeration was ever intended. 

It is that ‘cure’ that arouses my interest. We may ask the question: “How many people need a cure in their lives?” I suppose more or less everyone if they are self-aware at all, and honest. Then, we might ask “How are people cured?” The answer is that there are probably as many ways to be ‘cured’ as there are people, but in all, and overall, we are talking about sinfulness – major and minor – sinful ways to turn away from God.  Human considerations, unfortunately, often fail to recognise the seriousness of sin: we might say: “Oh it cannot be helped; it is really not his, or her, fault because of the pressures they are under; that is why they behave in this way, or that”. We may say that a person’s actions have their root-cause founded in his, or her, genes and this means they are not really culpable. We may put the cause down to their background: “They didn’t have a chance in life, and so it is understandable that such people turn to what is sinful and evil.” We may get used to sin through the laws and economic systems we tolerate – through our inertia and lack of commitment to a cause. We have a world in which those who are very poor, (something like 80% of the world population), have almost nothing; many are at food starvation levels, with inadequate water supplies and no recourse to medication, while those of us who live in the wealthier, well-developed countries, have more than we need. Can it be right to sit back and say: “I’m all right, Jack”, and ignore the plight of those who would eat the scraps from Lazarus’ table.  There are millions of ‘street children’ who are doing just that. Furthermore, we acquiesce in laws that make it legal, easily, to break away from the bonds of marriage, to call marriage something that it is not, or allow, all-to-easily, people to terminate pregnancies. 

All this leads to countless injustices, deaths, suffering and untold confusion in peoples’ hearts. In the present world situation – including that of our own country – there are crimes that cry to God for vengeance. What about the sufferings and deaths in the Middle East, in the Ivory Coast, in Japan, to name but a few disaster areas in our world. We remain helpless, though able to pray, for those involved in the sad situations of today’s world. And prayer means things are never ‘quite as bad as they are painted’; we should never doubt the power of prayer!  I have prayed, for years, for peace between India and Pakistan, and it seems the World Cup Cricket semi-final played its part. God has his own ways and means and, I suspect, a well-developed sense of humour. 

Unless rejected, sin inevitably leads to untold misery – and ruin.  I take for an example, the statement made to me very recently, to the effect that such-and-such a person should be told to stop behaving so badly, as what they are doing, will ruin their family. Yet, we are ensnared by our own desire for excitement, in a boring home situation, or, we are greedy for this, or that, pleasure, ‘pleasure’ leading to addictions, and further personal, and family, misery. Sadly, the low point of such tendencies – when all can become meaningless and empty – is for people, in our culture, to commit suicide. It happens far too frequently; I wonder if those who have taken such drastic measures can imagine the suffering this causes, to those who belong to – and love – those who die in this way.

John Newton 

The way out of all this, is in the autobiographical hymn of John Newton; the ‘Amazing Grace’ of God, i.e. his life and love and presence. Jesus said “I am the Resurrection”. He is not a vengeful God, always asking us to ‘cow-tow’ to his laws, but a friend who walks closely, by our side, if we will let him. Daily, we can pray, without any self-consciousness or awkwardness – perhaps, with a bit of practice – together with others who are our friends, and who are willing to do the same, for the difficult challenges of each day – challenges that may concern me, directly, or my family. Jesus is the Resurrection; that is the solution to every situation, including the final darkness, and emptiness, that is death. He is not a set of rules to be followed, but a living friend, whom we can meet in prayer, in the Word of God, in the sacraments, and above all with our friends; and, He has the solution for us. 

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.”

(Unfortunately, in sending out this blog by e-mail, ‘Word Press’ distorts the originalformatting of the document.  Readers are, therefore, advised to visit the website: should they wish to read it in its intended format).