Archive for January, 2012

Death, where is thy sting?

To many of us – if not most – the prospect of dying is not an easy situation to face, and this prospect grows even more awesome and terrifying, the younger we are. However, from an early age, we all become aware that it is something every last one of us must face. Because of the aura surrounding death, it is certainly not an easy subject to discuss, but to hide it away, as if it is never going to happen – never to mention it, because it is a long way off – can make the prospect worse, in my view.

The lines of a First World War poem, by A. E. Houseman (1859-1936), carry a message:

Here Dead Lie We:

Here dead lie we because we did not choose

To live and shame the land from which we sprung.

Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;

But young men think it is, and we were young.

There are some factors that tend to make us ‘afraid’ of discussing that moment when we leave behind this life on earth – factors that increase the fear we all carry of dying:

  • We do not know when we are going to die. 
  • We do not know the manner of our death – whether by natural causes, by accident, or by other means. 
  • We cannot know the time-scale of our ‘dying’, whether it is going to be quick, as in a heart- attack, or perhaps, the long-drawn conclusion to a terminal illness. 
  • We do not know what is going to follow – not with any certainty – as we have no previous experience of the process.

Now in all of this, I am quite sure in my own mind, that there is a further very important factor and that is faith – faith in God – and in the promises that Jesus made.

Many, of course, refute such beliefs out of hand. For whatever reason, they have no faith in the existence of God, nor in Jesus and in His saving Death and Resurrection. To many, this is just ‘poppy-cock’; many believe there is just no proof; many just can’t be bothered. Whatever their reasons, they face the prospect of death, and what follows must be total nothingness – total blackness – non-existence. Nothing, that is, except a void –something like the proverbial ‘black hole’. How awful!

Jesus and His Divine Mercy – “Jesus I Trust in You”

How much more enlightening, it must be, to have that faith in the existence of a Supreme Being, Creator of the Universe, and of all things visible and invisible – to have faith in the promises that have been made to humankind – all down the centuries – promises that set out for us, clearly, that there is another ‘supernatural’ life to follow – promises of His love and mercy, to protect us if we try to love Him and do His will – promises that this ‘life after death’ will take us to Him, thus enjoying perfect happiness for all eternity.

I think that there is one further very important consideration to bear in mind – and if we do – it may help to allay some of our fears. Death will certainly come to visit each one of us, at some time in the future. It will bring to an end our humanity, but it will not affect our spiritual side – not in the same way. Yes, we shall lose – leave behind – all human aspects of our life – human bodies, money, possessions, relationships, and all the human emotions, many of which are negative anyway e.g. hatred, envy, power, anger and greed. But, with faith – those who have the gift of belief in a Loving Father – our spiritual side carries on, enhanced a ‘billion-fold’ along a continuum that transcends death – one that has no interruption – no ‘tunnels’ or ‘lights at the end’ but moves smoothly on into a ‘new world’, and one in which those who have made the ‘transubstantiation’ will never have to face death again – one of the ‘preternatural gifts’ – we are promised:

The ‘preternatural’ gifts (from the Latin, praeter naturam – before nature), were bestowed by God on our first parents, Adam and Eve, so called because they were given before the ‘fall from grace’ in the Garden of Eden. They consist of:

IMMORTALITY: Freedom from death, or from the capacity to decay and disintegrate. Absolute immortality is God’s alone. His spirit is eternal by essence. Natural immortality belongs to all spiritual persons, angels and human souls. Their immortality is not absolute because God could annihilate them.  Gratuitous immortality was a special grace, given by God to our first parents Adam and Eve, freedom from bodily death, and from separation of soul from body. 

IMPASSIBILITY: Complete freedom from every kind of physical evil, such as sorrow, sickness, injury, or death, so that our being cannot suffer or die. Impassibility results from perfect compliance of the body and emotions to the soul. 

FREEDOM FROM CONCUPISCENCE: Concupiscence is the propensity of human nature to actual sin as a result of the original sin, which darkened our intellects and weakened our wills.  Specifically, concupiscence is the spontaneous movement of our sensual appetite toward what we imagine as pleasant and away from what we imagine as painful.  It leads us, in many ways, to turn away from God’s law, God’s perfection, God’s will that we should love him.  Once free from this gigantic negative, we can begin to live in God’s perfection.

 The Old Testament describes for us the happy state of mankind, before Original Sin, for, in the Psalms (Psalm 8, 4 – 9), we hear of God’s glory and Man’s Dignity (before the ‘fall’):

“What is man that you think of him;

Mere man, that you care for him?

Yet you made him inferior only to yourself;

You crowned him with glory and honour.

 You appointed him ruler over everything you made

You placed him over all creation: sheep, cattle, and the wild animals too;

 The birds and the fish

And the creatures in the seas, O Lord, our Lord

Your greatness is seen in all the world!”

If Adam and Eve had not sinned, we all would have inherited these preternatural gifts, together with the supernatural gift of sanctifying grace. The souls in heaven will recover these gifts at the end of time. With faith, we can believe that we shall die to our bodies, but live on to recover, eventually, that kind of perfection that ‘approaches’ the perfection of God, himself. In Revelation, (21:4) we read: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

Some years ago, a series of thoughts on the subject came into my head and I could not erase them. My ‘release’ was to write a poem in blank verse, consisting of three stanzas, in the last of which I tried in humble fashion to describe my thoughts on what follows death – for those who believe in God’s great love for us. The third verse, below, may help to alleviate some of the dread we carry for the unknown:

The time is now…..

Forever now, my friend, for time is fused

Into a single entity, whereby

Infinity is King, and dark gives way

To light.   Newly opened eyes now perceive

God’s Glory, Love and Majesty – Mercy

Towards all human kind, and Grace….. God’s grace

Restores…..breathes life to that so recently

Deceased.   Evil, Darkness, shall not more reign,

Nor shall pain and sorrow ourselves invade,

And Death lies corrupt….. powerless….. in his grave.  

Fear him not for he provides conduit

To that new life, eternal happiness,

Where souls begin to understand the world

The complex Universe, and Nature now

Includes the Stars within her Rainbow bow’r,

And sits down with the Sun.   Endless Space

Without belittling, puts Earth’s Galaxy

Into its place, its micro-cosmic niche

And Time….. its hours….. its days….. at last, stands still.

Goodness and giving, loving and living

Follow Apocalypse Now, that vision

Of God, in which perfection reigns supreme

And nothing, no…..nothing, is left to chance. 

Ask why, then, the fear and from whence it came

That fear of Dying and the Life it brought?

The answer lies in our lack of Faith, Hope,

And wavering Trust in the Word of God,

For we are human, after all, and doubt

Magnifies our imperfections.   The time

Is now, my friend, to mend our ways, …..believe

With all that strength of mind, and heart, and soul,

In God, His Word and promise of support  

Even unto the end of time on earth,

And into Paradise.

Please forgive my very ’human’ attempt to tackle what, for many, is an unmentionable subject. Should my words stand in error, and need of correction, then I apologise and ask forgiveness. Certainly, my exercise has been one solely designed to help, and not to cause any pain or distress.

May God forgive and have mercy on all our souls!

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We will all be changed:

20th January

We will all be changed.

We will all be changed is the theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is challenging. This week three times there has been the chance for me to take time out and to share together on the Word of God and there has been time to reflect on this sentence.

Leyland Methodist Church Turpin Green

On the first occasion we were at the Leyland Methodist Church on Turpin Green. It was really good just to sit back and let the service be led by another. But after a few lively hymns and diverse scripture readings, Phil Gough the Methodist minister, preacher and friend asked us all to think about “How Jesus has changed your life?”

Minister at Leyland Methodist Church

It was not so easy because private thought is one thing and we can go into the comfort zone of not really engaging with the question. But Phil asked us to buzz with our neighbour. My neighbour was the Deacon Ellen Winstanley Monk who is in charge of Midge Hall Methodist Church in Leyland and she insisted I should begin the conversation.

Deacon in charge at Midge Hall Methodist Church Leyland. She put me on the spot.

I know very well that Jesus is my redeemer and saviour, but I could not share on personal things like that. However Jesus is also the Word made flesh, and the Word of God has been fascinating me recently as bit by bit the power and might of the Word that transforms everything has been coming home to me. So I could share on how the Word that this month I am living means a great deal to me: in fact it has saved me. The word is: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” are from the letter to the Colossians 3: 1, and they remind us that we are raised with Christ in the very earthy existence we experience each day. At the same time the place of final and perfect peace and rest will be in heaven.

How I might feel without the Word of God, Jesus

This last week life has harassed me a lot: and when that happens it is not difficult for me to “lose the plot” and find myself wallowing in anxiety as I wonder what should be done. No need to enter into details, but in the midst of great activity as well as mistakes of one kind and another, it was possible not just to seek the things that are above but actually to remain “up there” in all the stress and strain of life down here. I suspect it is an art that every busy mother and housewife has to learn pretty quickly. But for me, a mere ordinary man with many limitations of ability and concentration, it was good to be calm as possible and even playful in all that had to be done with deadlines coming and not really being properly prepared for what had to be said. That kind of thing can cause me great stress.

Jesus on the Cross was harrassed; but he remained calm enough to speak to his mother

The other two occasions were also when it was good to relax and let the Word of God sink in to me. One was a local prison with the 17 or so prisoners who came to the “Word of Life Meeting. We focussed on the Word that is the Word of Life for the month “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” and the prisoners found it helpful to buzz with each other with the question that Rev Phil Gough had put to us. A young prisoner talked about his experience of Jesus saving him in the difficult condition of prison life; and it was refreshing and authentic. He explained how Jesus had begun to mean everything to him in there in Prison within all the difficulties of family visits and problems on the wing.

The other was doing the same thing with a group of men in Religious Life, and hearing a certain Religious speak out his mind as to his understanding of the power and majesty of the Word and yet feel that it was impossible to change anything: himself included.

Simple meal before sharing on God' Word 6 different Religious Institutes represented here

The understanding came to me that the turmoil that sometimes is within my life is only a microcosm of the struggle that there is between good and evil in our world. It is a huge victory for the Word of God when He succeeds in calming me down and allows me to be a bit more loving and peaceful. And it has happened: thanks be to God, though each day I certainly need to be on the watch. So if it can happen in me, a microcosm of this world, it could happen anywhere else.

Some think this world is hell bent of self destruction when we see the self-centredness of many around us: yet at the same time there are many ordinary people, in ordinary hum drum lives going about “doing good”, and so following in the footsteps of Jesus. And they can even witness to the fact that God’s Word is all powerful and redemptive. We will all be changed from glory into glory.

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Spreading the Gospel:

Spreading the Gospel

The Parish Pastoral Council has been discussing the question about how do we in our parish evangelise. It is something that has exercised us priests in our parish more and more. It is by no means easy to find answers, and the matter comes up again in out next PPC meeting. How many times have we monks also talked about it among ourselves, and for Fr. Ambrose of sacred memory it was his passion.

Fr. Ambrose reminds me of the words of Elijah the prophet to God as found in 1 Kings 19: 9-11. The account goes like this:
At God’s mountain he went into the cave and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He replied, ‘I am full of jealous zeal for the Lord of hosts, because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, have torn down your altars and put your prophets to the sword. I am the only one left, and now they want to kill me.’
The people of England have not as yet destroyed the Church, but the Church is very weak, and few keep to the implications of their baptismal promises, and in effect the majority who ignore the Gospel and the necessary worshipping of God together on the Lord’s Day have for themselves torn down the altars. They ignore the prophets so it seems.

We have had discussions in a small preparatory group for the PPC and we did come up with some ideas. They need testing, so enough of them. Last night I thought I would look at a book of personal meditations written by a Missionary of Africa, a friend of mine called Fr. Herbert Herrity from Scotland who for me is also of sacred memory and many others. The book is called “Doodles in the Dust” and is about his time in Northern Ghana from 1955-1991.

He was so authentic and engaging that what happened to him and his reflections and reactions, always genuine,  sincere and ‘different’, have left a lasting impression on me. They may help some others too. Certainly I identify completely with his description of what he was trying to do as a priest in Northern Ghana with what I attempt to do here in North West England.

In this incident Fr. Herbert was invited to the base camp of a surveyor friend he met, a Newcastle man who was engaged on building a big road. The first night another English lady turned up, doing field work in anthropology among the native people of Northern Ghana. The three of them were chatting after their evening meal together: each was in Ghana for different reasons: one earning a good salary as a surveyor, the other preparing for a University degree and the English lady turned to Fr. Herbert and asked him “And what are you doing here?” Fr. Herbert writes in this anecdote:

It can be difficult to explain fundamentals, the things that you take most for granted and have built your life on. Probably it is because they are so fundamental that they are difficult to talk about. Phrases like ‘save souls’, ‘build the Church’, ‘make Jesus known and loved’, ‘bring people to Jesus’ kept racing around in my head; but these answers would not do. To be honest, I felt very self-conscious as I struggled for words. But it was a good a good question, and I am so glad she asked it.
The Church repeatedly asks itself why it must be necessary. Neither the White Fathers nor the Church can speak for me. I must speak for myself. Why am I here in this remote village: what am I trying to do? Why am I a missionary?

Fr. Herbert in Africa as he might have told this anecdote.What I actually said that evening I do not remember now, but I hope I said something like this.

‘I am a missionary because that is what God wants from me in my life.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Absolutely!’ ‘And what makes you so sure?’ Firstly it would take too long. Secondly, because it is rather private. There is always, deep inside everyone, a part of us marked “Private to God alone”. But I can say this; when I look back and see how God has been leading me and working with me, I have no doubt that He wants to be a missionary. After all, if He wants me to do something, He owes it to Himself to inform me. ‘If the trumpet issues an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?’ But He has informed me to my complete satisfaction.

What am I trying to do?

Quite simply I am trying to love the people God has put beside me. They include other White Fathers, parishioners, visitors to the house, in short anybody that God sends me in my life as day follows day.

I want to love them with the love of God i.e. not self-centred human love but the unconditional, unlimited love of God. I want to love them in the way they want to be loved, not the way I or anyone else chooses to love them.

I want to love with the love that the Father infuses in me.

‘Who lives in love, lives in God and God in him’. To love in this way is freedom, for myself and also for the other. With it goes a joy that must always have been with Jesus. Little is said of the joy of Jesus in the New Testament.

I believe that the only right I have in this life is to love; not to be loved or appreciated but to love. Of course, , no one will ever take that right away from me.

I know this sounds wonderful; just too good to be true. I agree. But isn’t it good to have the ideal before us in spite of the fact that we all fall so short?

As I look around I get the impression that the world is not short of clever, even brilliant intellects; but it is short of love and loving people.

I imagine that when Africans look at their missionaries they are not looking for builders or organisers in the first place; nor for wealthy people who have access to money or resources. They just want people with the love of God in their hearts; people with time and sympathy and understanding.


The Shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had seen

A priest in a Middle East country racked with killings wrote recently to a group of friends, and his short story touched me and the others.

“29th December 2011 Here is a small sign of life from a city that you will know because of the bad news from it of the last months. We live in a war situation here. We have a curfew which begins early in the afternoon, what means that if you dare to go out on the street, you take the risk that someone will fire on you.

It is not possible to hold meetings or other gatherings of people. So Christmas mass was impossible. Each day we celebrate mass at our house with perhaps 10 people, no more. The number is always small but the faith is strong. Often people have to overcome their fear to come. They are attracted by something I do not understand; in an atmosphere which I would dare to call Jesus among us. The people really want to come and several of them come each day. They become true friends in the Lord, gathered by Him. Christmas in these circumstances became for me a unique experience which filled me with a joy which is perhaps something like the simple and natural joy of the shepherds of the Gospel at that first Christmas.

As the New Year is upon us I wanted to share with all of you something of the joy of Jesus among us, and so I have written these few lines to you.”

I was then also touched by the Gospel on Sunday 1st January, New Year’s Day and the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God. “The shepherds hurried away to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger. When they saw the child they repeated what they had been told about him, and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds had to say….And the shepherds went back glorifying God for all they had heard and seen: it was exactly as they had been told”.

The Shepherds in the time of Jesus were at the bottom of the heap in the rankings of society. Those at the top in the Holy Land of those days were the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Tax Collectors, the priests, good Jews like Joseph the foster father of Jesus and probably a small builder, those who ran small businesses, traders, farmers, fishermen, small shop owners and the like. Shepherds had to get up early, work all night as well, got low pay, and were often robbers and thieves in the hills. God sent the angel at the first Christmas to these who were among the least in society, and it was they who celebrated with Mary and Joseph the birth of Jesus, the Saviour of the World. It is said in the gospel that when the angel appeared to them “the glory of the Lord shone round they them. They were terrified, but the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you new of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger’. And suddenly with the angel there was a great throng of the heavenly host, praising God and singing, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy his favour’.

I wonder about those shepherds. Were they terrified as if they had been found out and had to own up to their bad deeds? Did some of them become followers of Jesus, saw his miracles and heard Jesus preaching,  and in their old age after Jesus had died and risen did they tell their story to the community of faith that St. Luke the evangelist belonged to? The detail of what happened is quite striking as though somebody who had been present had passed on what actually occurred.

I wonder also about my priest friend: he too seems to glorify God for all he had seen and heard in his war situation. He seems to have been given eyes to see and ears to hear what he had never heard before at Christmas in the midst of the most dangerous difficulties. Certainly his reaction is like that of the shepherds at the first Christmas. May we exult at the presence of God among us, in the good relationships we try to build often amid difficulties of a different nature; and may our faith and trust in God be as strong as those Christian lay people risking their lives to get to mass.

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