Tag Archive: Religion


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.

The headquarters of eBay in San Jose, Californ...

The headquarters of eBay in San Jose, California. Photographed on August 5, 2006 by user Coolcaesar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was fascinated to read that Ebay has recently banned the selling of spells, curses, hexes, magic, prayers, potions and healing sessions from its website.  Ebay – the virtual marketplace – is a capitalists dream.  Never has there been a market place with so many dimensions, with millions of items for sale worldwide.  The range of ‘ items are’grouped into more than 40,000 main and sub-categories, and cover everything for instance, a finger painting in real chocolate pudding by two-year-old Corbin, who is hoping to raise enough pocket money to visit Disney’s Magic Kingdom or a nifty black Ferrari 360 (starting at $150,000). Never before has there been a market with such abundant dimensions.  But it seems that even the free market has limits!

I think it is foolish to dismiss the paranormal, but also wise to protect the vulnerable from crass exploitation. There is a fine line between this type of exploitation and that of more reputable mainstream religions.  A slightly alarming development in Christianity over recent years has been the rise of the ‘Gospel of Prosperity’ mainly in Pentecostalist circles.  Something that impresses me about Pentecostalism is its ability to help people who are struggling ‘sort their lives out’ particularly in a poor urban context, and the creative ways many Pentecostalists put their faith into practical action and help transform communities and add to the common good. However what is a distortion of the Gospel is this idea that God will bless you financially if you donate generously to the pastor. Apart from obviously being open to corruption, it is this fusion of personal empowerment / self help which I think ultimately leads to a consumerist narcissism as opposed to the radical self-giving which is at the climax of the Gospels, and Jesus’s stress on servant leadership.  This distortion of Christianity is proving very popular in Asia, especially in South Korea which now has the biggest ‘church’ in the world in Seoul.

Interestingly eBay’s simple online system relies to an extent on the fact that most people are basically honest. But as the market grows in value, it inevitably attracts more rogues.  The first line of defence in online trading is eBay’s feedback profile, which is in effect the online reputation of both buyers and sellers. When any transaction is completed, both buyers and sellers are invited to rate how successful it has been, and leave a review. These reviews can be read by all users.  Many of the traders on eBay have come to value their reputations greatly, and those with enough positive-feedback scores are allowed to participate in buyer-protection schemes, which offer refunds. As far as religion goes – reputations are forged or destroyed at a much slower rate, over thousands of years.

AMDG

Jim Murphy at Manchester Universities Catholic Chaplaincy

In Britain it is the Political Parties conference season.  The Labour party is just finishing its conference here in Manchester.  I was very struck with the Scottish MP Jim Murphy who took an hour out of his busy schedule yesterday to talk to the students here at the Catholic Chaplaincy. Currently the shadow defence minister, and heavily involved in the Labour Party policy review, it was great to have him opening our ‘Faith and Politics’ season.  The stock of politicians at the moment in the UK is quite low, especially after the expenses scandal a few years ago, when widespread corruption and greed was exposed. Having sat in on a Fringe event earlier on in the week, it is very clear that net-working and self-promotion seems to be rife at these conferences.  Sometimes the self promotion seems stronger that the desire to serve for the common good, and this is probably why the public attitude to politicians has become, sadly, so jaded.

When Jim Murphy arrived it was clear he had lost his voice.  It was a real strain to hear him speak.  He had had two breakfasts that morning.  He refused any money for the taxi fare – and spoke gently but with passion about how faith and politics can be complementary.  I was quite struck by him – he didn’t need to come and talk to 35 students in the Catholic Chaplaincy, I’m sure it has done nothing for his political profile, there were probably more prestigious and more high-profile events he could have attended.  But he was faithful to his booking, even though his voice was giving out.  We were able to give him some throat lozenges as a thankyou gift, ‘I’ll have to declare these’ he said grinning.  I was fortunate to be able to tell him afterwards, that he had done a great thing,  as these students – some aspiring politicians , many Catholic, others not, had been really encouraged by him coming, and speaking openly about the tensions of faith and religion.  He is a role model for them.  He looked genuinely taken aback when I said that.  If only we had more politicians like him.

 

AMDG

Today sees quite an event in Manila. Up to 8million people will throng the streets for the procession of the Black Nazarene.  This is a black statue of Jesus carrying his cross.  Placed on a shoulder-borne carriage, the image is carried by marshals (you can see them in yellow shirts).
 Originally a statue with fair complexion the ship that carried it from Mexico to Manila caught fire. It barely survived the fire, thus its charcoal color. Last year, the procession took 14 hours to travel the short distance. Referred to as the translation - the annual procession commemorates the transfer of the Black Nazarene on Jan 9, 1787  to St. John the Baptist Church in Quiapo Manila. 
As tertians we visited Quiapo back in September – on just a normal day – and it was crowded with people with queues of up to an hour just to visit the statue. What is behind this devotion?  Filipinos identify with the struggles and sufferings of Jesus Christ’   In the statue Jesus is depicted getting to his feet after falling under the weight of the cross – this  resilience is valued strongly by Filipinos – even in the most difficult circumstances they never seem to lose hope.

There is something of a frenzy about today’s event – in previous years people have died from stampedes.   We were advised not to attend because of the dangers inherent – and also we are occupied most of the day – so I have taken a video clip from last years procession to give you a flavour.  You will see people desperately trying to touch the statue – and also throwing handkerchiefs so that they may be rubbed on the statue and passed back.  You will also see the crush, danger and discomfort that many of the ‘devotees’ voluntarily undergo.  From a Western perspective – this is unsettling – and such religious fervour is challenging to witness.  One of the ways to cope with this discomfort is to dismiss it as hysteria or superstition. But maybe there is something deeper at work…..  the power of the incarnation ….. an almighty God who came down to Earth, renounced power and privelege – and entered into the reality of our suffering .

So the event can be interpreted as being many different ways. It is a popular devotion – to non-Catholics it may seem superstitious . Having lived here for a few months with the privilege of sharing life with so many Phillipinos – in the slums, in mountain villages – having seen two devastating tornadoes – I have only admiration for their hospitality, warmth and cheerfulness. Their identification with the sufferings and resilience of Christ makes sense to me.  This year organizers believe thousands of survivors of  tropical storm Sendong will attend.

The German Philosopher Rudiger Safranski says that religion in Western Europe has become “a cold religious project”: a “mix of social ethics, institutional power thinking, psychotherapy, techniques of meditation, museum curation, cultural project management, and social work.”  This insipid form of a religion, yearning to be socially acceptable in a society that has changed rapidly, some argue has helped to empty Western Europe’s churches. It is through this lense that I believe we should watch, with a certain humbleness, the outpourings of  ‘popular religiosity’.  It is easy to mock or scoff, but it always leaves you with a sense of emptiness….

AMDG

What is Brian Cox going to say about this wonder?

Today is the Epiphany –  the climax of Christmas Celebrations for many Christians.  In Spain today is the day for present giving – the Reyes Magos – remembering the gift of the Wise Men.  Children throng the streets as the wise men throw sweets to them from their motorised floats (having done away with camels).   But the story of the star – in fact much of the infancy narratives – these are just childs stories – not really historical – right?   Think again – there is surprising evidence that might stop you from going down the demythologisation‘ route too quickly.  Astronomy – and its close cousin Astrology – one of the oldest forms of ‘science’ – has a remarkable set of records, of positions of the stars, conjuctions with the wandering planets. So we can delve into history and see what was recorded in the heavens.  It is a spectacular conjunction of planets and stars of this type that some have argued gave rise to the star of Bethlehem. Others point towards a supernova.  If you are interested, two Jesuits working at the Vatican Observatory, Br Guy Consolmagno and Fr Chris Corbally have written fascinating articles about the historicity of the Star.

Why is the Epiphany so important for Christians? it underlies the cosmic significance of the God who crated the universe becoming man, it also shows the universal relevance of the incarnation – Jesus is for all – the Magi, the Wise Men from the East probably came from Iraq. And as the Pope beautifully said, ‘The wise men followed the star. Through the language of creation, they discovered the God of history.’  It is worth also mentioning that after the two volume ‘Jesus of Nazareth’,  Benedict has said he is considering publishing a monograph on the infancy narratives.

Something I discovered a couple of years ago was Arthur C. Clarke’s short story ‘‘The Star’’.  It is a fascinating twist on the Star of Bethlehem story – not very edifying I am afraid – but interesting and thought provoking. Reprinted in a collection of Clarke’s short stories in 1958. In his introduction to this collection, Clarke noted that he wrote the story for a contest in the London Observer on the subject ‘‘2500 AD.’’  The narrative is the interior monologue of the central character, a Jesuit astrophysicist. He is aboard a starship on a mission to investigate the causes of a supernova in a distant galaxy. He and the rest of the crew discover the artifacts of a highly developed civilization, carefully preserved on the only planet that remains in orbit around the supernova. Knowing that all life would be wiped out when their sun flared into a supernova, this advanced race of sentient beings left a record of who they were and what they accomplished. The pictures, sculptures, music, and other relics of a very human-like race doomed to destruction depress the crew and investigating scientists, who are far from their own homes and lonely. What the narrator has learned but not yet communicated to the others is that the supernova that destroyed this civilization was the Star of Bethlehem, which burned brightly in the sky to herald the birth of Jesus Christ. His discovery has caused him to reexamine and to question his own faith.

So I will leave the last words to the Pope – ‘ The great star, the true supernova that leads us on, is Christ himself. He is as it were the explosion of God’s love, which causes the great white light of his heart to shine upon the world. ‘

AMDG

The Hole-y shoes of Tanudan.....

So I am still recovering from a physically arduous Christmas.  As you can see from the photo my trusty hiking shoes couldn’t survive the Christmas – my fingers poking out in strange places.  Here in the Phillipines you can get most things fixed at a very reasonable price (not like our disposable throw away culture) – but even some things have there limits. The local cobbler just laughed at me when I presented my sorry shoes to him.  I have a sentimental connection to these boots having tramped the highlands of Scotland, the highways of India and East Africa and the mean streets of North London with them in recent years – but they met their match in the Cordilleras of the Phillipines.

But a serious point is how impressive the work of the priests and missionaries is in this area – as well as how tough the locals are.  Wherever I went I was always accompanied by catechists / and youth.  They insisted on carrying my rucksack for me – and in the end I was glad as some of the tracks were pretty precarious. I think I would have been pretty unstable on some of the steeper paths.  A Belgian priest – Fr. Leo van de Winkle had gone missing about 10 years ago.  They have found his chalice deep in the forest and it is proudly displayed in the Bishops House, but his remains are still missing – so half-jokingly the Bishop suggested we keep an eye out for them!  It seems he was abducted and killed by local communists – who he was openly very critical of – but as I was walking some of the paths with the mudslides – and the steep drops I was thinking he could have just slipped and that would be it. The wild pigs would take care of the rest!

The CICM missionaries had set up an impressive network of schools and hospitals – and the evidence was the high educational level and cultureal level of the people. Most of my homilies were translated but they didn’t need to be as they seemed to understand even Scouse English and even laughed at my jokes (something I am not used  to).  I have to confess to being scared at times – particularly walking on the rice terraces…. the small paths with stones were not designed for size 11 European feet particularly belonging to a lumbering, lobsided 6ft 2 – 95kg beast like myself. So it was scary teetering – in the rain – in slippery rocks with a 200ft drop on one side of you – I said quite a few prayers to various saints….  What was amazing was seeing our companions dance along these paths and rocks in bare feet.  Here is a taste of the journeys and the welcome we would receive when we would arrive….

AMDG

Greetings of Christmas Joy and Peace Everyone!   I have emerged from the mountains of the Cordillera, exhausted but very happy, with wonderful memories of a very special Christmas with the people of Tanudan.  Thanks for the concerned messages regarding the terrible typhoon that hit the South of the Phillipines.  I didn’t know about it till yesterday which shows you how cut off we have been up in the mountain villages.  It had been raining steadily for 2 weeks as the tail of the Typhoon hit us – which meant landslides and swollen rivers making vehicular access impossible.  As a result we have been without electricity for much of the time (having to ration the remaining gasoline).

As they say a picture paints a thousand words – so below is a small taste of the journey into the mountains – with chickens / pigs / puppies – the last vehicle I saw for two weeks!  From then on it was walking from village to village for the pre-dawn masses, beautiful singing, and a simple lifestyle!

A first Christmas without presents/cards /booze/ TV /even electricity but full of singing, dancing and joy!  It was humbling to see how happy the people where to have mass for Christmas.  Even managed to squeeze some Baptisms in on Christmas day – after the celebratory pig was prepared of course.  Unfortunately the relentless rain seems to have destroyed my boots and my video camera – but I seem to have some footage saved.  So the next few days I will post some more stuff.  What remains with me is the glow of hospitality – unlike the people of Bethlehem, the people in the villages of Tanudan all opened their doors – many gave me their beds or a floor to sleep on, fed me, washed my muddy gear, gave me copious amounts of gorgeous home-roasted coffee.  So there was room at the inn this Christmas for me!

AMDG

Bishop J P Andaya – 15 years a missionary in Africa before being appointed to Apostolic Vicarate of Tabuk. Its remote nature makes it a mission area and thus not a diocesis …. yet!

Well it promises to be a Christmas we will never forget!  In the West we are used to a slightly frenetic round of anxious present buying, potentially hazardous Christmas Parties and then maybe a blow out followed by a few lazy days  in front of the box.  Here in the Phillipines Christmas is celebrated slightly differently.  Come Boxing Day everything is back to normal – all the energy builds up before Christmas. Simbang Gabi,  the nine-days before Christmas in the Philippines, is where all the action happens. Masses begin as early as 4 a.m., a tradition that is said to date back centuries, to the time when Filipino farmers under Spanish rule had to rise early to find time to worship before toiling in the fields. The priests saw that the people attending the novenas were tired and numb from work in the fields, even though they continued to want to come.  As a compromise, the clergy began to hold Mass early dawn when the land would still be dark, a break in tradition prevalent in Spain and her Latin American colonies. This tradition has been enthusiastically embraced and continues till today.

Four of us met the very impressive Bishop of Tabuk this morning, and he has assigned us our places.  I am to be posted to Tanudan, perhaps the most remote parish, although one of my companions has to cross a river more than thirty times to get to his mission station.  The Bishop himself is going to accompany me for the first few days.  I was surprised and very impressed to find out that he tries to visit the more remote areas when he can,  He seems to be a bishop that doesn’t need his comforts!  He informed me that it will be about a 10 hour hike to get to our base.  I was told later told me that the Bishop said 10hrs because he has shorter legs!  Then the daily routine is a five/six hour hike – arrive at a mission station – rest – rise early for mass and then off again to the next stop.  The place has no resident priest at the moment, its thin mountain air makes it a challenge to fill the spot –  so it may be possible that for some of the villages it may be their first mass for months.  We were given a detailed briefing of the different social situations we would encounter/ possible tribal tensions / as well as rather worringly stories of four priests who have been killed in the last 30years. In my place Fr Elias Baleng was caught up in a tribal conflict and was killed protecting two women -he was probably a martyr.  The Church has responded by establish a peace-makers movement, which has significantly reduced tit-for tat tribal killings. Due to this it seems I much safer and stable, and the priest is seen as a valuable commodity – at least at Christmas time!!   It will almost definitely be safer from the streets of North London.  Strikingly hearing about  the tribal tensions and violence reminded me of the gang violence and postcode ‘wars’ in London.

I’m dreaming of a green Christmas!

Everywhere we have been told to expect packed churches. So today I am shedding some weight from my backpack to prepare – but I have invested in a wireless broadband so I am taking my laptop! Hopefully there will be a few mountain tops en route where I can get a signal and post photos and news!  Having just googled Tanudan – I will share one of the images (on the right) which has got the juices flowing! I just hope I can navigate the rope bridges safely – without making too much of a fool of myself!

This may be my last post till Christmas – that is up to the Smart Bro network and how much it penetrates the Cordillera mountains!  If so have a lovely holiday and thanks for reading!

AMDG
We had a powerful celebration of Mass for the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary today. This is a big feast here in the Phillipines where Marian devotion is incredibly strong.   In spite of tropincal storms many turned out for a procession to honour the Immaculate Conception last Sunday in central Manila. As you can see from the photo they made sure that the statues were kept dry – unlike most of the faithful.  This is a feast celebrating the sinlessness of the  Mother of God who, we anticipate in this second week of Advent,  will give birth to the King of Kings.  Today the presider was a famous Jesuit called Fr Manoling Francisco.  What is most notable about Manoling,  as well as his writing, his teaching as a theologian, setting up a foundation to support education for youngsters from the Mountain Region (were we depart for tommorrow) is his musical compositions.  His songs seems to be sung everywhere.  Most of them are in Tagalog – I can’t get his Our Father of my head at the moment….

Anyway it is clear he has a wonderful romantic spirit and it was a pleasure to hear him speaking so passionately about Our Lady today.  That her ‘fiat’ her ‘yes’ to God was an act of incredible generosity and purity of heart – considering the punishment off stoning that was given to Women who become mysteriously pregnant out of wedlock. I was musing about this whilst wandering through the campus here at the Ateneo de Manila when I stumbled upon this. Addressed to Lila with the Golden Eyes…..

Wonderful!

Courage certainly!  Purity of heart? – I’d like to think so!

I bet you didn’t realise that Adele was so popular over here (not bad for a Tottenham girl!)

 

AMDG

The newspapers in the Phillipines have all had David Beckham on the cover the last couple of days. He is in town to play a game – but is doing impressive work for UNICEF too.  His LA Galaxy beat the Philippine National  team (the Azkals) 6-1, and as he left the pitch after 70 mins he handed his shirt to a certain Manny Pacquio who was in the crowd.  It is a testament to Beckhams global appeal that he even seems to outshine Pacquio. Well who outshines Beckham? Well for devotion in Asia – Saturday was the feast day of St Francis Xavier – close friend of Ignatius and great missionary to Asia. His voyages are now legendary – and his popularity as a saint seems to be universal – he is truly an A-Lister!   His popularity can be measured by the amount of institutions, schools, parishes, universities, centers that are named after him.  Perhaps an even more impressive legacy is the impact of his name – Xavier is the name of his home ‘town’ or estate.  Just think about how many people you know who are named after him, Javier – Xavi – Xavier – Javi.

The Madonna and Child in Glory with Saints Ignatius of Loyola and Xavier – Pacecco de Rosa

In honour of the feastday – ignoring the big game – we tertians were invited on Saturday night to the Xavier school in Manila.  As well as celebrating mass, a very generous dinner was laid on – and the highlight of the dinner was the  presentation of a painting to the Jesuit Community and College of Francis Xavier.  The benefactors and donors of the painting – the D.Campos family (former students) -were attending an auction of Princess Diana’s goods on behalf of the Spencer Familyat Christies in London. This painting of Francis Xavier and Saint Ignatius with the Madonna and child caught their eye, it is an original by Pacceco de Rosa and it was bought  at an auction .  In a commemorative postcard given to is all said May we have the burning zeal to bring everyone to the Lord. 

The Devotion to Francis in Asia transcends religious groups.  I still have fond memories of taking a group of students from Wimbledon to Goa.  We were given permission to celebrate mass in beautiful Jesuit Church (and UNESCO site) the Bom Jesu – but had to wait about half an hour.  The reason we had to wait was that a Japanese goverment minister was visting the chapel.  It is a very popular place of pilgrimage in Asia as the chapel holds the glass casket where St Francis’s incorrupt body is on display.  The Japanese minister, not a Christian, had traveled all the way to Goa after a ministerial meeting in Dehli just to pay his respects.  The Body of Francis is brought down for veneration every 10 years and millions travel to Goa (Christians & non Christians) to venerate this holy man. Amongst Jesuits, Xavier is treasured for many reasons,  his successful missionary work, his capacity of inculturation, the beautiful letters written to Ignatius and distributed throughout Europe. He was sent by Ignatius to the ‘Indies’ as a last-minute replacement for Bobadilla, who had suddenly fallen ill. The very next day he packed up his things to leave Rome for Lisbon never to see Europe or his beloved Ignatius again.  This freedom of spirit, ‘availability for mission’ and generosity is what we are asked to live up to.

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