Sunday, 1 May 2022

Breakfast at Jesus' (not Tiffany's)

 Our apologies for a long silence on the blog. Between the busyness of Easter and Brian being off work ill, we have not been able to get here. Let us resume reflections, however, with this very Easter theme of breakfast with Jesus that appears in today's gospel.

There is something deeply paschal about devotions in the early morning. It was at the dawning of a new day that Jesus rose from the dead. It was in the quiet of a Sunday morning that Mary met Jesus and did not know him until He said her name. And it was in the fresh light of day that Jesus appeared to his disciples by the Lake of Tiberias, better known as the Sea of Galilee, and gave them one of His final commands: "Come and have breakfast." This He did after delivering to them a miraculous catch of 153 fish - which, at least for a breakfast menu, can only be described as an overabundance of resources.

There are probably any number of mystical readings of the fish and the apparition by the lake at this point in Jesus' post-resurrection life. Yet, perhaps one reading that is less common is the fact that Jesus seems to show something here about His appreciation of our physical life - indeed His physical life also. For He is true God and true man. 

Of course, He invites them to eat with Him by the lake in the same way that He orders Thomas to put his hand into His wounds: to prove the reality of His body. Nevertheless, there is something about this scene that reminds us of one of the earlier apparitions of Jesus walking on the lake, frightening the wits out of his disciples. Maybe in that episode He was also teaching them something too, notably about His power and the authority it gave Him. Yet could He not also have been simply enjoying His walk among the waves on the water (of which He was the creator): the water that He had made and saw was good? 

To see good causes us to delight. To see good causes us to rejoice. Is this not also a feature of Jesus' inner life both as God (because what He creates reflects His wondrous goodness) and as man (because the just man rejoices in that which is good)? All the penances of the Lenten season behind us were not meant to divorce us from our physical and material existence, but rather to discipline and purify our relationship with it (as well as doing penance for our sins of course). None of the deprivations were inspired by a hatred of our physical condition but merely by the need to ensure that rejoicing in lesser goods not impede our path towards the ultimate Good.

To understand the lower goods of creation as reflections of that higher Good is to see the created world around us in its true role as the canvas on which the colours of God's beauty are continuously painted by His creative force. Thus, when Jesus invites his disciples to breakfast after a night of fruitless fishing, we can detect a hint of that morning above all other mornings - the morning of eternal life - when we hope He will welcome us into His light, the light of the adorable Trinity, in which He will refresh us with the overabundance of His goodness.

When Jesus says, "Come and have breakfast," He is giving us an invitation to the endless festivity of heaven in the enduring morning of His happiness.

Wednesday, 6 April 2022

Reflection on our own particular cross from St. Francis de Sales


St. Francis de Sales wrote the following words about the cross that we each carry on our journey to deeper inner freedom in the Christian life.

"The everlasting God has in His wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost heart. 

This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you.

He has blessed it with His holy Name, anointed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God".

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

A pilgrim's reflection: on the beauties and the dangers of the law

 "The man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matt 5:19)

The idea of the law can sometimes have a bad reputation among Christians. The topic seems complicated. Jesus lambasts the Pharisees for adding the burdens of human tradition on top of the laws which God imposed on the Jews under the Old Covenant. The constant scrutiny of legal compliance is what seems to characterise many of their questions to Jesus in the course of His ministry. Yet in today's gospel, Jesus seems to veer in the other direction, specifically warning his disciplines not to imagine He is abolishing the Law and the Prophets.

As we see in the period after the Ascension, the apostles have to work out whether the ritual and dietary elements of the Law should be adopted by Gentiles who become Christians. St Paul even clashes with St Peter on this issue when Peter does not stand up to those Jews who wanted to require Gentiles to conform. That particular issue is of course long since passed in the history of the Church, but in a way the problem haunts us still in another guise, most especially in how we relate to the various elements of the Faith.

For it is possible to treat the practices of the Faith like a set of instrumental rules that deliver salvation to us. When we do this, our compass shifts subtly away from the communion of divine friendship which God calls us to in Jesus Christ, and towards a legalistic compliance by which we measure our own performance in the faith. Let's make no mistake here; divine friendship requires us to be as faithful as we can by God's grace. We take our failings then to the confessional with us. Yet, in our resolve not to sin again, as the act of Contrition says, we can be too ready to police this compliance not so much with rigour as with something approaching egoism - a tendency that has more to do with our self-image, than it has with a genuine outward turning of the soul towards the God of love who reaches out to us.

This is perhaps one of the places in which self-surrender becomes essential. In truth, we are not the masters of our soul, and compliance lies beyond the capabilities of even the greatest saints (for the just man falls seven times a day). Unconscious forces and needs - the wounds of original sin that remain even after baptism - operate in us and twist our best intentions when we least expect it. The good that we would do, that we do not, as St Paul tells the Romans.

Worse still, however, our knowledge of God's laws can work against us when we dress up such unconscious needs as the fulfilment of the law. An unregulated and unconscious need to nurture others can be disguised as a dutiful exercise of love towards our neighbour while underneath it may be more about manipulation and control. An unregulated and unconscious need for attachment to others can be disguised as humility, selflessness or dutiful obedience but underneath it may be a kind of servitude. The best we can do here is to know where self-confidence ends and a genuine distrust of self begins. Or, as St Philip Neri used to pray, "Dear Lord, don't trust Philip!".

So, to conclude,  we should both embrace and avoid the law! Embrace it as the expression of the beautiful order that the God of love calls us to. But avoid it - or not so much avoid it as know how to suspend our legalistic impulses -  when our hearts misuse it as a measure of self-regarding evaluation or as a cover for the pursuit of needs that simply have not been brought before the throne of Christ and surrendered at His feet. 

Surrender all to Him. Our real journey into the abyss of love begins there.

Thursday, 10 March 2022

... a pilgrim's prayer journal ...

 'Ask, search, knock ... is there anyone who would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread?.... 

... So always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets.'

Matthew 7. 7-12

Generally these words of Jesus from His mountain discourse bring to mind the encouragement to pray for real, specific things and to be 'extravagant' in our requests to God., trusting that He wants to give us what we desire as long as those are good desires, in line with His will for us.

This time I was struck more by the fact that verse 12 is included in the reading.  We are reminded to treat others with equal kindness, dignity and respect, as we would like to be treated.  It struck me that we are being invited here to be like the Father in the previous verses, to give abundantly to others as He does.

When we practice saying our 'Yes' to the Lord, every moment of our lives, are we also able to say yes to others in the same way?  Do we always respond openly, giving the bread and the fish we're asked for every time?

Jesus says here that this mutual kindness is 'the meaning of the Law and the Prophets'.  How often do I remember this in the little things, even the tiny requests for a yes from me, in the good and bad moments of every day?

Tuesday, 1 March 2022

A pilgrim's reflection: wars and rumours of wars

 We do apologize for not updating the blog for a little while. Last week saw us travelling to Dereham midweek ahead of a meeting of the Walsingham group, and we returned from Walsingham ill and have spent the last three days in bed! So many moments in which to say 'yes' to the Lord more fervently than ever - would that we could do so easily!

Undoubtedly, however, much of our attention has been drawn in the last few days to the extraordinary and ominous events unfolding in Eastern Europe. We are watching history unfold before our very eyes. The events of the last few days will undoubtedly have a profound and lasting impact on international affairs - perhaps even on our own lives. We are yet to feel fully the economic consequences but these too may be significant.

There is no easily available, just-add-water-and-stir spiritual answer to events of such magnitude. We are human after all, and we are both vulnerable and slow to understand. Some of us may be personally affected immediately by what is happening if we have family in Ukraine or nearby countries. Others may have friends there or close by, as is the case for us. Others among us may feel more personally remote from the situation. And yet, in a great and mysterious way, we are all concerned and should feel concerned. 

So, when we are ready to bring ourselves and this issue before God, we have now more than ever a perfect opportunity to plunge more deeply into what it means to drink Christ's cup of suffering with Him. Many Ukrainians are our brothers and sisters in Christ. All Ukrainians and indeed Russians are our fellow citizens of the world. The persecution of every innocent soul, the broken bodies of the refugees and the victims of bombings and other atrocities, are all so many blows aimed at the heart of God who has commanded His followers to love one another as He has loved us. How can we not grieve in such evil times? 

As is so often the case, the gospel of today offers us a lifeline of sorts to unravel this ungodly mess. "Your light must shine in the sight of men [...] so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven." Few of us are called to solve the problems of the world. All of us, however, are called to say 'yes' and 'thank you' to God every day, so His goodness may become the woof and weft of the existence He has given us. 

All of us are capable of coldness; let us conquer it with the warmth of His love despite the cold shadows or war. All of us are capable of hostility; let us vanquish it in our hearts with His goodness which seeks to reconcile, sundering ties only with the burdens of sin. 

May all know the Father's love through our actions this Lent. And may we be worthy to follow our Crucified Lord in His victory parade up the hillside of Calvary. 

Mary, behold your children and keep us close to Him.  


Tuesday, 22 February 2022

... a pilgrim's prayer journal ...

"You are the Christ, the son of The Living God"

Mtt 16:13 

Who you say the Son of Man is? 

When Peter responds to Jesus he knows that Jesus is the Messiah.  He has turned out to be very different from the messiah they thought they had been waiting for all their lives.  It was by the grace of God that Peter recognised Jesus and only by God's grace is Peter ever going to be qualified to lead the church.

We know by now that the disciples took a long time to learn what Jesus was teaching them patiently every day for the years of His ministry.  We know too that Peter is about to be rebuked by Jesus for trying to stand in the way of God's plan for our salvation.

However, even though Peter will deny Jesus at the last moment on Good Friday, he still becomes the Rock upon which the Church will be built.

What about us?  We may well feel unqualified for the tasks God has for us.  Even though we know Jesus is the Messiah and our only Way to heaven, we might still be trying to change the course of God's plan for us. So often we don't want to accept whatever we perceive to be too hard, too demanding or even too extraordinary for our small lives to cope with.

However, just like Peter, we need to rely on God's grace, His action in our lives, His formation of our hearts.  We need to be teachable and available for His will.  

Though Peter was remonstrating with Jesus because he wanted to protect Him from suffering, he was still blocking the will of God, putting himself in the way of the plan God had in mind for our salvation.

Let's not let our own 'good intentions' stand in the way of God's will for us.  If God has called us to to a thing, then He will qualify us to do it.  Its not up to us to decide if this call fits into a polite pattern of pleasing others or fulfilling apparent expectations.  If God has called us to something, then He will bring it to completion, just as He did with seemingly rather hapless Peter.  

Mary didn't let all the risks or consequences of her situation stop her or try to convince the angel to change the plan. Her 'fiat' was said humbly, joyfully, fully relying on God to qualify her for the task ahead, in spite of her littleness and the seeming impossibility of the task.

Let's follow her example, every day.

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

... a pilgrim's prayer journal ...

Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod

Mark 8:14-21

Don't worry about the bread, Jesus can deal with bread!  

The disciples had forgotten to bring food.  After all that business with not having enough to feed everyone and then the miraculous moment with the five loaves and two fishes, we might have thought they'd have made sure they always had provisions with them after that.  

But no, here they are again, twice, it would seem, in a very short time, without enough between them to feed everyone.  Someone pipes up that they have one loaf between them on the boat.  

Jesus comes back however with something completely different.  They're still concerned about what they will eat, still feeling stupid for having forgotten food and thinking He is complaining about that.  Bothered that they look silly.

But no, He couldn't care less about the next meal, that was small fry, He could handle that in a moment and according to Him they should have realised this.

What He wanted them to be concerned about was a different kind of 'leaven' or 'yeast' - 

"the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod"

What was that?  It was enough for them to learn to be fully reliant of Jesus for all their bodily needs, to entrust themselves to Him to manage the food question as well as the clothing and lodging question.

Now He was over their heads again and over ours too probably, if we just read the words without pondering and considering what Jesus really wants to say here.

Its not about bread, or fish, or raising agents...  

However, it is about relying on Jesus, trusting Him to deal with the small stuff and then going deeper.

We know what Jesus thought of the way the Pharisees went about their religion as He is reported several times in the Gospels chastising them for various things.  We also have a detailed description of the way Herod thought and acted, in the telling of the arrest and subsequent murder of John the Baptist.

The Pharisees thought they could earn their way to heaven, they were scrupulous to the extreme and tied themselves and others in knots with their rules.  For them the worst thing was to be seen to be breaking a 'jot or tittle' of the law... They were primarily relying on themselves for the health of their spiritual lives. 

Herod on the other hand, was concerned with success by the world's standards, being seen to be a great king, a strong ruler and keen to stay riding the waves of popular acclaim and adulation, even fear as long as he kept his earthly status at all costs...  He was primarily relying on himself (his status, power and earthly authority, riches and appearance) for success in his earthly life.

As Jesus tells the disciples - and us - to be on guard against both of these temptations, clinging to our own control and working it all out by ourselves.  He seems incredulous they were still talking about the bread.  As so often happened during Jesus' ministry on earth with His disciples, and as so often happens with us here today as we try to follow Him, we get bogged down in the daily doings of life and don't notice when we're being influenced by the leaven or yeast of the Pharisees or even Herod.  

We need our trust and faith to grow.  To trust He will provide for us - both physically and spiritually - that He can do miraculous things with some very ordinary things (even bread - both physically and spiritually) and He can do the same with us.

We need to be open and teachable - docibile - trusting that God can give us all we need on every level.  We don't need to worry about looking perfect in the eyes of the world or in the eyes of religious leaders.  We can't earn heaven through ticking boxes.  We can't earn a gift that is given freely.

Another way of looking at it, which I've been pondering lately, is the worker of the eleventh hour, who obtains his full reward at the very end of a long day.  The other labourers, who had sweated for hours through the hottest part of the day and would receive the same pay. complained that this late-comer was getting off lightly.  The result was the same, they were to be rewarded just as he was.  We really need to make sure we're not like them - we can't earn heaven through decades of hard graft and then demand our pay.  

Suddenly someone we have known forever as not being quite up to scratch in our opinion, could one day present to Our Lord a childlike, simple, open, teachable heart and might surprise us by passing 'Go', getting their £200 and receiving a 'get out of jail free' card before us... even when it would appear that they have done nothing to deserve it (like we have).

Neither can we earn our way to heaven through decades of climbing the greasy pole, priding ourselves in success or status or achievement.  Or even measuring our worth by the approval ratings of our bosses, colleagues or peers.  This is another sort of bread Jesus didn't much like, he called that 'the bread that perishes'.  That would have been the bread Herod served at his palace banquets.  

We need to be like Our Lady, one of the poor ones, the little ones - anawim - full of wonder at what God can do, fully aware of God's power, fully trusting and reliant on Him, despite what it looks like on the outside.  

We need to be teachable, fully reliant on Jesus - for the spiritual as well as the physical - saying our 'yes' in each moment and knowing that He has everything in hand if we would only let go and allow Him to be our God.

Sunday, 13 February 2022

Beatitude in joy and sorrow

 "Rejoice when that day comes, and dance for joy." (Lk 6: 23)

Today's gospel sums up in many ways the commingling of joy and sorrow that comes with our saying yes to God. The fiat in joy and sorrow, that we explored in the last study session, is here attached to a rainbow spectrum of human sufferings - poverty, hunger, tears - that, as we know, are to be understood in their spiritual sense first of all. The privation which each of these sufferings carries with it is an invitation to us to take stock of our radical insufficiency and to abandon ourselves to the Father. It is also a reminder that much of our faith comes to us in paradoxes: God is three and one; Mary is virgin and mother; and in the beatitudes, those who have nothing are ready for heaven. 

In truth we are likely to run away from this invitation to abandonment and the recognition of our poverty that it entails. Something in us wants to measure up to Jesus' teachings, and when we fall short, we can hate ourselves for it. But, as the great French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos, author of Diary of a Country Priest, says at the end of that novel: it is easier than you think to hate yourself. Grace means forgetting yourself. This is genuine poverty: to forgo the satisfaction of self regard for the reformation that can begin - and begin and begin again! - when we abandon ourselves to the loving, piercing regard of our Saviour.

In avoiding the commingling of joy and sorrow - what artful dodgers we are! - I wonder if we are also likely to invent forms of fake spiritual wealth to serve as cheap holiness. There are many necessary weapons in the spiritual armoury - lectio divina, adoration, novenas, rosaries, all manner of devotions - but if we do not approach them with humility and moderation, we risk using them to veil ourselves off from our own emptiness, treating them like conquests (and who has not prided themselves on the spiritual achievement of the unmissed novena prayer?). Sometimes in the storm, they feel like all we have to cling on to, especially when Jesus seems to be asleep in the boat. In this moment, however, we are most at danger of thinking that our fidelity, rather than God's graciousness, will determine the outcome. Save us, Lord, else we perish, is the sentiment that should shape all our prayers. Prayer should involve a revolt against our self sufficiency. In moments of consolation, we should also take care not to let such spiritual armoury, as glorious and as dignified as it is, hinder us from facing our own spiritual poverty, our failure to forgive, our ongoing refusal to let go of our vanity and withstand the hatred of the world that Jesus points to as our lot in life. As another poet said, at that point we're so full of what is right, we can't see what is good. 

How, then, can we pronounce our fiat, our abandonment to the Father in the face of joy and sorrow, without looking for pain relief or satisfying our vanity? As mentioned above, I wonder if the beginning of an answer lies simply in St Luke's description of Jesus before he begins enunciating the Beatitudes, fixing his eyes on his disciples. How would it be if instead of measuring ourselves against the outward appearances of holiness, we looked first in every devotion or spiritual practice to catch the fixed gaze of Jesus - the gaze of the One who has already fixed His eyes on us - and meditated on what that loving gaze means and what it requires of us? Would that not change our readiness to accept both who He is and who we are too? Would that not begin to break down the barriers that our pride constructs against the invasion of our divine conqueror? 

At the very least, such an attempted gaze might bring us up to the level of the blind beggar Bartimaeus, the patron of those who daily struggle to recognize their purblind poverty.  Then, we might alter the words of another piece of poetic wisdom:

O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as Jesus see us!

And not only to see ourselves, but to make ourselves dependent on His power to establish His kingdom in our hearts. And that would indeed be something to dance with joy for.

Sunday, 6 February 2022

Fishing for customer satisfactions

 "And when they had done this, they netted such a huge number of fish that their nets began to tear." (Lk 5:5)

We all want to make sense of our lives, sometimes too much so. Maybe it is something in the traditional stories we were told as children; maybe we might blame it on the Hollywood films that teach us to think of lives in complete story arcs. Whatever the cause, our minds seem to want polished narratives that make sense of our lives, and because of this, we appoint ourselves commentators on how the story is unfolding. In this way our sense of 'the will of God' and 'our vocation' can become entangled in our own attempts to make sense of our lives, rather than being triangulation points that redirect us to God's path. 

Now, this is a mistake for three reasons at least. First it is a mistake because we already know what God's will is for us: it is our sanctification, our being remade in Jesus' image, and being drawn ever more deeply into the inner life of the Trinity. Second, the problem is that in laying down a narrative - "so, that's what God was doing", we want to say - we risk trying to take control of the story, looking for signs and portents of His will. My spouse and I used to joke about our naive attempts to read the signs of God's will by calling out 'Spoons!' to each other. The thing is: spoons always fit together, whether they are meant to or not. The third mistake is that all this waiting around for God to issue us with some certifiable vocation means that we are trying to make God follow our calendar, instead of embracing the uncertainties of God's own good time; in that case, it also might mean we are missing what He is doing today.

So, what has all this to do with today's gospel? The essence of it is captured by the disciples while they were still serving as fishermen in their boats. Was that not their vocation? Was that not the will of God for them? And, there they were, after a night's fishing, facing the fruitlessness of their own efforts. Something in us wants to see successful people as having found their way, and unsuccessful people as needing to find their way. Yet maybe we need to be more detached than that. Wanting to know the bigger story - wanting a bona fide, recognizable, genuine vocation now, thank you God - can block our attention to the little details that surround us and that are full of meaning and sense. How easily we forget that the God we believe in draws meaning out of absurdity and joy out of terrible pain. He is after all the one who reaps where He has not sown, and gathers where He has not strewn. Of course we all have a vocation, but let us not behave like we can pluck it off the shelf, take it to the counter, and pay for it like a customer. Our vocation is a journey, an education and a love story; it is not a bargain, a comfort blanket or a lottery win.

What is needed then is not to turn the will of God or our vocation into an idol or a product that we hope to grasp and brandish, but rather to see them as the ways in which our life with Blessed Trinity can unfold. Then indeed, we might discover the abundance of fish that God lands in our nets daily, if only we were paying attention. 

Wednesday, 2 February 2022

Pope Benedict xvi On God's Will for Our Life

"Every day in the prayer of the Our Father we ask the Lord:

“thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10).

In other words we recognize that there is a will of God with us and for us, a will of God for our life that must become every day, increasingly, the reference of our willing and of our being; we recognize moreover that “heaven” is where God’s will is done and where the “earth” becomes “heaven”, a place where love, goodness, truth and divine beauty are present, only if, on earth, God’s will is done."

How can we build practical links in our lives between the Colwelian commitment to say yes and thank you to the Lord, and what Pope Benedict calls the “will of God for our life that must become […] the reference of our willing and of our being”?

Breakfast at Jesus' (not Tiffany's)

 Our apologies for a long silence on the blog. Between the busyness of Easter and Brian being off work ill, we have not been able to get her...