Category: Books


AMDG            Yesterdays Homily for the feast of the Presentation given in Oxford 

touching-the-void-posterA few years ago I read a book called Touching the Void – it was one of those books that you can’t put down and I thing I read it in three sittings in the space of 24 hours…… it told the story of climber called Joe Simpson and his friend who had a climbing accident in a remote mountain in the Andes…….. After breaking his leg, his friend lowered him down, attached by a rope, in rapidly worsening conditions, till eventually he was lowered off a cliff. Finding themselves at a dangerous impasse, he had to make an excruciating choice, they wither both wait and die, or he cuts the rope abandoning his friend to almost certain death, but probably survives himself.

He cut the Rope.

Amazingly his friend was to survive, and crawl back to the base six days later.…………However  going back to that night when the rope was cut, he fell and landed on a ledge.  When he was sitting on the ledge, alone, forsaken …. and staring death in the face, Joe Simpson decided there was no God.  He encountered  a void……  He would have experienced what St Ignatius would refer to as an acute desolation.   The recently canonised Jesuit Pierre Favre, talks about intense experiences in prayer ‘where God withdraws his presence’. Not permanently ….. but in a way to teach us when we are in danger of taking God for granted.  In the time of the Ezekiel, about 600 years before the birth of Christ – he predicted a chilling prophecy ‘ That the Glory of the Lord would leave the Temple’ .  This would be devastating news for the people, that temple was where humans and God were reconciled;  it was the unique place to encounter God, the one place where sacrifice to God was allowed.  Can you imagine how the People must have felt when Ezekiel prophesied that the Glory of the Lord would leave the temple’.  The temple would soon be destroyed by the Babylonians,  for the Jewish People it was a communal experience of touching the void.

images (1)So we can appreciate today’s readings, and particularly the Joy of the Prophets Simeon and Anna in the light of this experience of desolation.   Firstly we heard the Prophet Malachi in the first reading,  ‘And suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek,’  – this prophecy would give great hope….. but none would expect the manner of the Lord’s coming.  And so today we hear how the child Jesus is presented before God in the Temple. We are told that Simeon is awaiting the consolation of the people Israel – and as he holds this child in his arms he believes this promise is finally fulfilled .  With the eyes of a prophet he recognises the presence of the Lord in this small child, and utters the words of that beautiful prayer ‘The Nunc Dimitiss’ which is said by millions of us each night at Compline.  Similarly the prophetess Anna, having spent years of prayer and fasting in the temple in anticipation of this moment, she rejoices in the Lord having returned to the temple.

The return to the temple of the Lord has profound significance for Christians on two levels….. Firstly in the physical, historical presence of the Lord – the presence of God on this planet is transformed.  In the incarnation – God is no longer limited to the Temple…. No longer limited to one city, one place.  Christ’s Body becomes the Temple – so as he dies on the cross, the curtain in the Temple that veils the Holy of Holies mysteriously is torn into two.  Then on the second level – the temple is the place of sacrifice, bulls and goats, doves and incense were offered to be burnt as thanksgiving offerings, guilt offerings, offerings at key moments in life e.g. childbirth.    When the Lord is presented in the Temple he will become the sacrifice that fulfils all other offerings – and we continue this sacrifice every day when we pray the beautiful prayer of the mass.  However in the sacrifice of the mass, the most beautiful prayer we can make, we relive the greatest sacrifice of all, Christ giving his body and blood for the sins of the world.  His sacrifice trumps all else – and this prayer is being offered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week all over the world, in great cathedrals and in simple chapels, in the heart of great cities and on the tops of mountains, in schools and universities and in rainforests.

So as the Lord is presented in the temple – let us renew our devotion to the mass – to Christ’s presence in the Liturgy of the Word and in the Eucharist, and in and amongst each other.  We are not alone – we are not abandoned – sitting on an icy edge of life,  when we gather together for mass, mysteriously we are in the real presence of God – whose grace works quietly and patiently transforming our hearts and our lives.

Breaking the Chain of Hate

AMDG

download1I read a book a few years ago which had a profound effect on me.  ‘Forgiveness – Breaking the Chain of Hate‘ by Michael Henderson looks at the lives of dozens of remarkable people of many nations and faiths who have been able to break the chain of hate through repentance and forgiveness.  They included survivors of the Burma Road, the Siberian Gulag and Nazi atrocities.   This for me is the key to life of Nelson Mandela which is being celebrated today.  One of the most eloquent testimonies has been Archbishop Desmond Tutu, you can watch it below, but for me he identifies this remarkable inner transformation that took place in prison. To my ears it is similar to the transformation that can happen in the silence of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius.   ‘The crucible of prison added a deep understanding of the human condition and a profound ability to emphasize ….. like a most precious diamond honed deep beneath the surface of the Earth – The Madiba who emerged from prison in 1990 was virtually flawless.  When you thing that he went to prison as an angry young man and he emerged as an icon of magnanimity and compassion‘.  The whole interview is below: the first few minutes are dynamite! 

Riding the 24hr news wave

AMDG

I spent a very absorbing weekend at Media City here in Manchester, with a group called Catholic Voices.  Originally set up to respond to the opposition to Pope Benedict’s Visit, they are still recruiting teams of very capable speakers – to be wheeled into TV & Radio Studios as the relentless 24hr news schedule rolls remorselessly on and on.  To give you a sense of their great work watch the video clip below.

This weekend was a training weekend, accompanying them as their chaplain, I was both inspired and moved by their generosity and their commitment. It impressed me how much they cared about putting across the faith in the best way.  The training is very professional, they underwent a fairly hostile interview from experienced BBC journalists on both the radio and also on TV.  A brilliant technique they are taught is always to find the positive intention, especially in an ‘opponents’ view point or in their interviewers searching questions.  So when an interview begins with the question ‘ Are you a Bigot or a Dinosaur?’ they are able to gracefully sidestep it and get into the message they want to share.

Seeking the positive intention in a hostile interview or debate reminds me of St Ignatius advice to Spiritual Directors

That both the giver and the maker of the Spiritual Exercises may be of greater help and benefit to each other, it should be presupposed that they ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbour’s statement than to condemn it. (Paragraph 22)

25297_WWhen we were in the hothouse of the Jesuit Novitiate this was very useful – and we often used to say to each other – ‘paragraph 22′ – i.e. lay off.

The other thing that impresses me about Catholic Voices is their ability to get across a complicated brief, aided by an excellent book written by one of their founders, Austen Ivereigh. The Book is called How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice.  It is masterful how it deals with complex and damaging assumptions about the Catholic Church, and explores them to give a balanced and clear representation of the issues.

Keep up the good work!!

A poet touching heaven

AMDG

rsthomas_2It was an unexpected treat falling asleep last night listening to the poetry of R.S.Thomas last night.  ‘Poetry Please’ on Radio 4 was repeating a program to mark the 100th anniversary of the Welsh Poet/Priest .  A fascinating amalgam of extreme nationalism, misanthropic bitterness but also wonder and almost mysticism. His poetry is so powerful that he was short-listed for the Nobel Prize for literature.  It was almost too much listening to poem after poem on the program as they are so rich – it was like being forced to eat a banquet of great food too quickly.  However there was one poem that made me get out of bed to go and dig it out of my small collection of his books. I don’t now why it hadn’t registered before – but I think it is worth reading again and again.

THE ANSWER (by R.S.Thomas)

Not darkness but twilight
In which even the best
of minds must make its way
now. And slowly the questions
occur, vague but formidable
for all that. We pass our hands
over their surface like blind
men feeling for the mechanism
that will swing them aside. They
yield, but only to re-form
as new problems; and one 
does not even do that
but towers immovable
before us. 

Is there no way
of other thought of answering
its challenge? There is an anticipation
of it to the point of
dying. There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

Heroic Faith (2)

AMDG

Walter-Ciszek-SJFather Walter Ciszek is an American Jesuit who spent 23 years as a priest in Soviet prisons and doing hard labour in Siberia, from  1940-1963. His time included 5 years in the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow, and 15 years in a Siberia mainly working in and around the town of Norilsk.  He has written a mesmerising account of those years which has been recently republished by Ignatius Press, it is called ‘With God in Russia’.

Reading the book is a testament to an incredibly tough guy – who also seemed to be blessed with a deep faith and outstanding pastoral skills.  His survival was a miracle in itself – enduring long periods of isolation and interrogation in Moscow.  Then the harrowing stories of him being transported to Siberia after being sentenced as a ‘Vatican Spy’ to 15 years hard-labour.  The conditions which he endured as they left Moscow which was under prolonged attack by the Germans.

With God in RussiaThe account is absorbing and well worth reading, told with clarity, without sentimentality, at times so crisply that it catches the breath – the terrible hardship and cruelty expressed in a couple of sentences.  Highlights for me include –

  • His faith in God’s providence that helped him beyond the limits of physical endurance, with never any hint of feeling sorry for himself (maybe twice in the whole book did he momentarily succumb to despair)
  • How when in solitary confinement – for months on end – he would order his day around the ‘ordo’ he remembered in the novitiate – from his Jesuit training, to keep him from going mad.
  • How his fellow prisoners, even the violent thieves, were keen to protect him as a priest in a savage world of survival.  How well organised he and the other priests became – and the remarkable ministry they were able to give in secret – sacramental, but also giving retreats!
  • His constant and varied scrapes with Death – Physical Torture, beaten and being injected with chemicals by KGB, Explosions in Coal Mines, Being fired on by Russian Soldiers during a prison revolt, Immersion in Freezing Rivers when logging, Surviving Scurvy from inadequate prison rations, Acute Food Poisoning, prolonged periods of starvation, Constant exposure to arctic conditions in inadequate clothing, Fumigation on two week barge journey etc etc!
  • The risks prisoners would take, even unto death, to hear Mass or go to confession – their courage of practising their faith in the face of brutal repression
  • And finally how he celebrated Easter and Christmas both in captivity and then when he was released on a limited permit.  When he was freed, he celebrated an Easter Vigil that finished at 3am – although communion was distributed from then until after 9am so big were the crowds. Right under the noses of the KGB.  It was such a success – with so much joy – with so great numbers greeting each other  ‘ Christ is Risen’ – ‘He is risen in indeed’ that he was forcefully deported to another town and banned from religious activities!

 

Heroic Faith (1)

AMDG

$T2eC16RHJIIE9qTYKDQ4BRo1n+7-z!~~60_35Whilst I was on my retreat last week, I was able to do some spiritual reading.  I was inspired by a book called ‘The Flying Bishop’  Fifty Years in the Canadian Far North, by Gabriel Breynat OMI.  It documents how the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and Sisters of Charity (Grey Sisters) did heroic work in Canada and Alaska at the turn of the century.  The author, pictured right, was called the Little praying man by the First Nations when he arrived in 1892 at the St Bernard Mission in Athabasca – 10 years later he was named Bishop at the age of 35 – and served as a bishop for 42 years.  He saw the mission grow north of the Arctic Circle,  establishing churches, Schools, Hospitals, Farms, Harbours even Coal Mines.

With such a huge mission territory and such harsh conditions the work that they undertook was incredible.  Originally visiting various communities entailed sleeping out on the ice, occasionally building igloos, surviving hurricanes, Ice Drifts, boats being crushed by Ice flows, having to eat their own dogs to survive, frostbite (losing toes), Bear attacks, Plane crashes, 3 month long winter and twilight, fishing under ice flows, hunting caribou (with migrations of 3  million of them at a time).  It is gripping reading. $T2eC16h,!ysE9sy0kzGKBQuDq7vLPw~~60_35The Travel was rigorous – but as the ice began to break up travel by canoe and boat became possible. mission boat evolved  went from 20hp to 120hp, finally they were able to buy a mission plane. This lead to him being known as the Flying Bishop – but the plane made possible a visit in 9 hours of various mission stations what would have taken him 9 weeks in his early days.  

Pope Pius XI took special interest in the mission – the first book he had read as a boy was an account for the quest of the north west passage.  The Pope was especially interested in the most remote and northerly mission, the mission of Christ the King in the Minto Inlet, on Victoria Island.  004272On occasional visits to him in Rome, the bishop would always have an audience with the Pope who was entranced and gripped with his updates. He presented a chalice to be used on this mission.  A Papal delegate visited many years later and reported ‘The Fathers dwelling was a big tent of tough canvas, about 15 feet by 20 feet and served as a chapel, presbytery, kitchen, bedroom – in one corner, behind an Indian curtain, was a little altar, surmounted by a poor tabernacle arranged like an ammunition box. IN the middle was a rich chalice presented by Pius XI and used by himself .  It was engraved Pius XI, Christus Vicarius, Christi praeconibus (Pius XI, Vicar of Christ to the Heralds of Christ)’

The missions had it own martyrs - The killing of Fr Le Roux and Fr Rouviere by Sinnisiak and Uluksak (two Inuit) near Bear Lake. Also the drowning of another priest who misjudged the thickness of the ice as he was trekking to another mission station.  It is inspiring and moving to hear about the dedication of these men and the sisters who were helping them – but the last word is for the one of the Inuit leaders who addressed the pope’s delegate in these words.

You the envoy of the Very Great Man of Prayer, have come from far away to see us.  Even though we live at such a distance, as though hidden in a wood, and even though we may seem, like Cain of old, to flee from the presence of the Holy Spirit, yet the men of prayer have sought us out: they are great hunters.  For a long time they pursued us, as though hunting, before they could catch us in the lasso of their prayer. It is nearly twice a thousand winters since the birth of Jesus.  At last the men of prayer have reached us: thanks to the Great Spirit we should say. You will tell the Very Great Man of Prayer that we venerate him most respectfully and love him with all our hearts; we thank him for having sent you here to see us.

.

 

Facebook & Status Anxiety

AMDG

This is a scheduled blog – posted automatically – I’m on a silent retreat at the moment so will only be able to moderate or reply to comments when I finish (14th)

Thumbs down.It was reported last week that Facebook spreads unhappiness (examples here and here).  Research in Michigan, US,  suggested using the site makes people less satisfied with their lives. This resonates with other research that claims Facebook usage increases feelings of isolation, jealousy and depression. It is not clear whether this is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation… i.e. it is not facebook that causes isolation but rather those who feel isolated who are more likely to spend more time on facebook. However let’s remember the genesis of facebook, dreamed up in the dorms of Harvard, a high-pressure tank of adolescent insecurity, competitiveness and astronomical expectations. This was portrayed warts and all in the film The Social Network – and perhaps explains why  the architecture of Facebook Pages are often carefully designed to suggest a great and exciting life and therefore can be misleading.

status anxietyCould it be that Facebook is hyper-charging ‘status anxiety’. This idea came from a fascinating book of the same title by (atheist) philosopher Alain de Botton. Most unhappiness comes from this status anxiety and explains why the rich are often unhappier than those with much more modest lifestyles. Because we are always comparing ourselves to those who are one step above us on the wealth ladder. Rather than being satisfied with what we have, we become anxious because we don’t have as nice a car, as big a house etc as this or that friend. You can see how that works on facebook – X’s status updates/ photos indicate they are having a more exciting life than me. Look at his photo in a club surrounded by those beautiful girls whilst I am stuck at home (probably doing something much more interesting or fulfilling). Why has she got twice as many friends as me. So if you want to be happy – don’t fall into the trap of Facebook Status Anxiety!

By the way if you have read this through my facebook link and think it’s a bit hypocritical – my blog posts go onto facebook and twitter automatically. My policy with facebook is to ‘raid’ every week – get in and get out as quickly as I can – and do my business before I get sucked in…(honest) !!

images (4)Today’s Saint – Saint Lawrence – is famous as a deacon in Rome.  As a deacons in the early church, Lawrence had the responsibility for the material goods of the Church & distributing alms to the poor.  In the third century when the Roman emperor ordered the death of the Pope, the prefect then ordered for the churches goods to be handed over. When St. Lawrence was asked for the treasures of the Church he brought forward the poor, among whom he had divided the treasure as alms.”Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the church’s crown.”

images (1)When reading this I though of the commitment to the poor of Pope Francis – like Lawrence his faith was rooted in the daily struggle of the people he lived with.   It is a rooted faith – and then of course I thought of his football team San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence).   It is great to hear that he is keeping his membership up (reminding me to renew my Liverpool membership card!).   Like many football teams San Lorenzo’s roots are actually ecclesial.   San Lorenzo was formed by a group of kids that used to play football in the corner of two busy  streets of Buenos Aires.  Due to the increasing traffic in the city, playing football at the streets became a risky activity for the boys. Fr Lorenzo Massa, the priest of the neighbourhood’s church, saw how a tram almost knocked down one of the boys while they were playing in the streets. As a way to prevent more accidents, he offered the boys to play in the church’s backyard, under the condition they had to go to mass on Sundays.  Wanting to call the club after him the priest denied to be honoured that way. Nevertheless, the name was finally accepted by the priest, explaining that the name would not honour himself but , St Lawrence of Rome

images (3)Pope Francis still pays his annual membership fee – and so proud of their fan becoming the Pope – San Lorenzo recently took to the pitch with his face replacing the advertising on their shirts.  A faith that is rooted and close to the passions of the people – that reminds us that God is close to us in all things.   A faith that shares the passions of many. The 34rd General Congregation of the Jesuits published a decree on our mission and culture – at one point it says  “(as Jesuits) …. We have sometimes sided with the “high culture” of the elite in a particular setting: disregarding the cultures of the poor and sometimes, by our passivity, allowing indigenous cultures or communities to be destroyed”  ….. On a final note I recommend a great book called ‘Thank God for Football’ by Wirral author Peter Lupson – he traces the roots of  Aston Villa, Barnsley, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Fulham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Queen’s Park Rangers, Southampton, Swindon Town and Tottenham Hotspur all back to churches and priests / ministers!

FrancisPlane

Pope Francis spoke with great freedom and compassion in the now famous ‘no limits’ interview to the press-corps with him.  Whilst the ‘Who am I to judge a gay person?’ has rippled around the world –  for most Catholics this is no great surprise.  However there was a more subtle point that has been missed by many – In the Pope’s own words (translated from Italian)

I see that so many times in the Church, apart from this case and also in this case, one  looks for the “sins of youth,” for example, is it not thus?, And then these things are published.  These things are not crimes.  The crimes are something else: child abuse is a crime.  But sins, if a person, or secular priest or a nun, has committed a sin and then that person experienced conversion, the Lord forgives and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives.  When we go to confession and we truly say “I have sinned in this matter,” the Lord forgets and we do not have the right to not forget because we run the risk that the Lord will not forget our sins, eh?  This is a danger.  This is what is important: a theology of sin.  So many times I think of St. Peter: he committed one of the worst sins denying Christ.  And with this sin they made him Pope.  We must think about fact often.

This link between forgetting and forgiveness is a massive point for me in the digital age.  As Andrew Keen makes out in his excellent book Digital Vertigo, the internet has not yet learnt to forget and thus cannot forget.  We all make mistakes as we are growing up, in fact I am convinced that we grow more through our failures rather than our successes.  That is when we really learn about ourselves.  However today’s ‘Digital Natives‘ are making many of their mistakes on-line.  This makes them vulnerable, as pictures and words are all up there available to all,  to future employers and media outlets.  Their mistakes are being made in public – and they are particularly vulnerable because of this.   One day we will have a Pope who is a digital native, I hope by then the internet will have learnt how to forget, then it may become a more forgiving and compassionate place.

More precious than money or happiness?

AMDG

I am reading a thrilling book at the moment on one man’s quest for silence in the modern world. George Prochnik argues that more than money, power and even happiness, silence has become the most precious commodity of the modern world. Fascinatingly he traces the etymology of the English word silence – to a Gothic verb anasilan, which is a verb that describes the experience of the wind dying down. This is a very evocative verb, you can almost imagine the Gothic tribes standing outside their wind battered huts in Germany or around the Black Sea, savouring the respite in the biting wind.  The noise of the wind for them has almost become a relentless buffeting of wind for us in the age of TV, IPod, and urban life.  But paradoxically it is in the cessation of noise that we come to appreciate noise. Neuroscientists at Stanford University have demonstrated that when we listen to music it is the silent intervals in what we are listening to that triggers the most intense and pleasurable brain activity.

Prochnik  argues that a lack of silence is actually harming us.  Spending time with a police officer in New York on night shift, he discovers that the majority of domestic disputes that the cop is called out to are actually noise complaints.  When the cop arrives he goes into rooms where the television is blaring, with a radio on top of that and maybe a game station going on too.  The first thing the cop does is tells them to turn everything down and get them to sit down for a minute and listen.  The stress decreases, the tension abates, muscles relax, the heart beats more slowly and the cop says ‘that feels different doesn’t it! – maybe the reason you were fighting is how loud it is inside of the apartment’ According to the cop  most of the cases end there and then. I have only just starting reading  his book,  ‘A pursuit of Silence‘ embarks on a fascinating quest and I’m looking forward to accompanying him on it!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,789 other followers