This is my homily for tomorrow - the Second Sunday of Advent
Speaking Truth to Power is a phrase that is often used to describe people who bravely stand up against injustice. It takes courage, it takes integrity to put your head above the parapet. It probably explains something behind the overwhelming reaction to the death of Nelson Mandela this week. Whenever there is a media frenzy there is a lot of nonsense spoken about someone’s life – and this week is no exception to this – however it cannot be denied that Mandela become a powerful symbol for many people. He spoke truth to power, and they tried to silence him, but in the end truth won out. He was lucky – he wasn’t silenced – he didn’t become a political martyr. Speaking truth to power is part of the job description for an Old Testament Prophet. And today in the Gospel – on the second week of our Advent Journey we meet the greatest prophet of them all, according to Jesus, John the Baptist. Unlike Nelson Mandela – we know that John was eventually silenced – beheaded by Herod. John is one of the great advent figures – bridging the gap between the NT & OT. He speaks with great authority, and that authority is recognised by the people and so he attracts great crowds.
What is his message for this advent ? I think that he is warning not to be complacent in our faith. He calls the Pharisees and the Sadducees ‘A brood of vipers’. He is not confronting the power of Herod yet – but a much more subtle power – the power of respectability and the power of a good reputation and keeping a public face. So let us examine our own faith and our own lives.
St Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises writes very clearly about the seduction of power and honour. In his meditation on the Two Standards – he talks about how the trappings of fame and honour are used by the enemy to seduce us …. to pull us away from God, so that we come to believe that we are all powerful. There is a fascinating index called ‘The Power Distance index’ which measures how much a country respects authority and values hierarchies. The higher the country is the more likely it is to be totalitarian and score high on corruption scales. In ancient times when a Roman General or a Roman Emperor used to have a victory triumph (or parade) and was receiving the adulation of the masses – a slave would stand behind him and according to Tertullian whisper in his ear “Look behind you! Remember that you are a man! Remember that you’ll die”…..the famous memento mori.
So this Advent – let us heed John’s challenge. Let us be honest about the little ways we are seduced into thinking that we are great, we are clever, lest we become complacent. Advent is a time for our hearts to become humbler – that we dust away the complacency – as we would preparing a guest room – for a special guest. But this time the room is our hearts – and for the grace of Christmas to go really deep – our hearts have to mirror that humble manger in Bethlehem.
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!
Hearing (Photo credit: Keturah Stickann)
Nick Coleman is a Music Journalist/Critic, in love with many forms of music, who writes passionately about musical taste, in short music has become his career and livelihood. One morning he woke up feeling dizzy, nauseous and soon had lost his hearing and was experiencing terrible tinnitus. After battling with depression he has been able to teach himself to hear again. He talked about his experience yesterday at the Edinburgh Book Festival. A breakthrough moment for him was when he met the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, who said that to be able to hear again he had to start by remembering his favourite songs. Through this he learnt that we hear with our brains much more than our ears. If you play someone some music and map their brain ‘waves’, then switch the music off and wait for 15 minutes and ask them to remember the music, the pattern of brain waves is exactly the same. Working on this Coleman has taught himself to hear again (in one ear) and been able to resume his career.
Photo credit: raphaelstrada
Towards the end of the session he said, ‘Although I don’t hear like I used to, I listen more carefully, listening is hearing plus mind, I now appreciate music even more;’. I have been mulling over this difference between hearing and listening. In an age of an incredible amount of ‘noise’ it could be possible that we are losing our ability to listen because we hear so much. The art of attentive listening is hugely important, it has a therapeutic value for the person being listened to, it counteracts the loneliness and isolation in modern life. Listening with the mind could also be a useful way to think about prayer or meditation. When people talk to me about being frustrated with prayer, getting distracted, I often suggest that some distractions may be worth paying attention to. It could be that God, who calls us through our deepest desires can sometimes being trying to get through to us through what we classify as distractions.
Rediscovering the art of attentive listening to each other and to God could be crucial.
UK’s Da Vinci
The Edinburgh Book Festival is getting underway up here and I am rubbing my hands with anticipation! Of the many authors who will be discussing (and promoting) their books one that caught my eye is Thomas Heatherwick. He is an inspirational designer who has been called a modern day Leonardo da Vinci, an incredible platitude from no other than Sir Terence Conrad, one of the UK’s leading designers. Heatherwick’s book ‘Making’ reveals the incredible span of his work, from a new shape for double decker buses to his amazing dandelion Cathedral ‘ UK pavilion at Shanghai Expo. Heatherwick was also commissioned by Fr Christopher Jamison, the then abbot of Worth Abbey, to help ‘refurbish’ their abbey Church (right). According to Heatherwick, ‘the original auditorium space of the Abbey has a tangible spiritual feel to it; a difficult thing to achieve with modern materials without the obvious historical and religious architectural references. Natural stone and neutral colouring make the space light and airy.’ The new furniture he designed includes pews for 700, choir stalls, monastery seats, desks and confession rooms, all of which were fabricated from the solid hardwood. Heatherwick, who is internationally acclaimed in the field of design, has now emerged into wider British consciousness through his work on the amazing Olympic Cauldron, unveiled to universal admiration at the Opening Ceremony.
The idea of the Cauldron was that each country brought in a copper kettle as they paraded in – those individual flames rose together to produce the big Olympic flame. At the end of the games each country will take back their cauldrons with them. It is a beautiful symbol of unity and hope. Considering the countries take part include including Syria, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Nigeria etc this is a powerful symbol. The writer behind the Olympic Ceremony, Frank Cottrell Boyce, has written a beautiful reflection on seeing the Cauldron lit for the first time on the Thinking Faith website. Boyce, a Catholic, describes seeing the cauldron lit for the first time in a rehearsal. The ceremony’s main designer, leaned over to him and whispered, ‘There you go, Frankie, Pentecost!’. When creative geniuses like Heatherwick and Boyce come together they can produce something transcendental and truly inspiring. Lets pray that the universal hope of Pentecost may return in all the athletes hearts to their own countries.
Frank Cotteral Boyce’s article on the opening ceremony is here – Thinking Faith
Thomas Heatherwicks description of the new Benedictine Church at Worth is here - http://www.dezeen.com/2011/11/05/worth-abbey-by-heatherwick-studio/
What a difference a month makes, Andy Murray on the same court against the same opponent seemed to be a different person yesterday. It has been called the fastest redemption story in sport. Murray, often seen as moody, has been smiling, having fun and playing with a freedom and a ‘lightness’ that he didn’t seem to have at the Wimbledon tournament. He has clearly thrived over the past week not being such a focus for national attention as during the Wimbledon fortnight. Being part of a team and being inspired by others – he has said he is so glad to be part of Team GB and is motivated by the other athletes. What is the difference? I think it is that he was not just playing for himself but for something bigger than him. It reminds me of that beautiful line in EP 4 ‘And that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him‘ . It is also beautiful – that in a sport, with huge amounts of money, pressure, were everything is oriented to the individual with a huge entourage around them – it is the Olympics, with no direct monetary award, and where Murray is one of many great British athletes…. it is this environment that has brought the best out of him.
Ignatius describes the phenomenon of spiritual consolation in a similar way – anything that opens us to the world, fills us with peace, joy, freedom – allows us to fulfill our potential can be a sign of consolation. When we are basically focused on something greater than ourselves. The opposite, desolation, leads us in on ourselves, to self doubt, apathy, cynicism. This is speaking very generally of course and in the spiritual life consolation and desolation can be much more subtle than that (i.e. If an evil tyrant had self doubt it might be a path to consolation!) Ignatius talks about consolation in a much more focused and religious way – here are his words:
“ I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.”
Whereas desolation leads to “ the opposite of (consolation), as darkness of soul, torment of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.”
Sometimes being snowed-in may save your life
Today we remember St Jean Vianney – the famous ‘Cure of Ars’. I was researching a bit about him yesterday and found a fascinating story. Born into revolutionary France
, when the faith was outlawed, Vianney as a young boy would travel miles to mass with his family to remote farmhouses. The windows would be covered in cloth, to hide the shine of candlelight. Impressed by the courage of the priests who were risking their lives and the guillotine to celebrate mass, the seeds of a vocation were planted. Incredibly as a young man, Vianney was press-ganged into Napoleons army to fight the Spanish. On a forced march to the Spanish border he managed to slip away and was stranded in the mountain village of Les Noes. The deep snows of a winter stranded him and kept him safe from the zealous gendarmes who were searching for deserters. During the the long winter he set up a rudimentary school for the children. He was ordained and his holiness led to the radical spiritual transformation of the community of Ars and its surroundings. His fame spread far and wide, and soon over 20,000 people a year would travel to Ars on a pilgrimage, and to make their confessions to him, and these was the days before Easy Jet! In the summer he could spend up to 16hrs in the confessional.
No wonder he is the patron saint of Parish Priests. What is striking about his story is the growth of his vocation in the most hostile circumstances, with so many obstacles put up against him. Echoed perfectly in today’s readings of the Prophet Jeremiah being delivered from execution, and the Gospel of John the Baptist beheading by King Herod. Kings, Emperors, Revolutions – no matter how powerful they seem, Gods will, sometimes working imperceptibly, will always find a way. The most powerful force in the world – even greater that the Higgs Boson or the magnificent Jessica Ennis. With an open heart the will of God is irresistible.
Having returned to Edinburgh from beautiful Arisaig it is impossible not to notice all the posters that have popped up all over the place. They announce the imminent arrival of the Edinburgh International Arts Festival and its 23 associated festivals. There are book festivals, jazz festivals, politics festival, contemporary art festivals, street performance, internet festivals and interestingly a festival of spirituality and peace. The Fringe festival (mainly comedians, but also theatre, poetry etc) is the biggest of its kind in the world. Last year the Fringe over three weeks held 2,500 international shows from 60 nations in 258 venues and sold nearly 2 million tickets. It is interesting to observe that stand up comedy has become hugely popular in the UK over the last 10 years. The top names, are now like rock-stars and play to stadium sized crowds and regularly engage in very lucrative tours. Some of the comedy, dressed up as satire is fairly nasty, mocking and angry and does little to inspire and much to generate cynicism. However it is interesting to note that the big stars, the most popular seem to have a more gentle approach, often more observational and self-deprecating.
I am particularly looking forward to the Book Festival and the interestingly named ‘Festival of Spirituality and Peace’. In its twelfth year, the base for the religious festival is an Episcopalian Church, St Johns on Princes Street although there are over 400 activities across 21 venues. With speakers, conversations, performances, film, food, exhibitions, family activities, workshops, art, culture and more ‘FOSP’ is now looking forward to its twelfth year. According to their website the organisers aim is ‘ to encourage community by exploring diversity. FoSP provides a platform for people to explore their own spirituality by engaging with other people’s, to promote peace.’ The programme is eclectic varying from a Soweto based dance troupe, Poetry in a Persian Tent, sessions on Ethical Banking, Jewish storytelling and Asian & Arabic fusion dance. I am booking tickets for some discussion events, including one with the title of ‘Where are the Organisational Healers?’ and another intriguingly entitled ‘Churches own 8% of the planet’. It is a fascinating time to be in Edinburgh – so I will share my experiences on this blog.
My cheesy ‘helping-others’ picture
The turning point in the life of St.Ignatius was when he encountered God whilst recovering in Loyola and realised that God wants to help us. These may seem obvious, but I have met many people who feel God is there just to judge them, or catch them out, or disapprove of their sex-life, or stop them from doing what makes them happy. I think this is Freud’s ‘God’ – who as far as I am concerned, doesn’t really exist, or at least is a stranger to me. On the contrary, like Ignatius and many of us, when you have first-hand experience of the goodness and kindness of God you realise that you are invited to share in and spread this goodness and kindness (easier said than done!). The ministry of helping others like God helps us is the greatest thing that we can do with our lives! Another way of putting it is to that we can become ambassadors of the goodness and kindness of God. (Note – Before I get complaints I am not saying it is to be a Jesuit! although for some of us it helps!)
This calling to spread the goodness and kindness of God is why Ignatius and his companions understood their mission to be one of a ‘Ministry of Consolation’.
Or put into his own words and more simply ‘To help Souls’.
But as a wise Jesuit once said (excuse the English) - to be ‘helpers’ we need to be helped! How can we get help so that we can be helpers? This is where our way of life comes in (not just lifestyle – but more than that – how we life our lives. If you believe in an infinite God that there must be different ‘paths’ or ways to God….. some are better than others…. others can be false paths or dead ends. For Christians – there is a uniqueness about the claim that God became a man – in the figure of Jesus. But even within Christianity God calls us in different ways – for most Jesuits – serving others within the Society of Jesus seems to be the best way for us. So this month has been put aside to study the ‘institute’ of the Society of Jesus. Institute here means our way of living and working, which is most concisely expressed in our Constitutions.
Ignatius dedicated the last 16 years of his life in Rome working on the Constitutions – in fact they weren’t finalised until after his death.
As a former tertian-master said ‘The Spiritual Exercises are what make us Ignatian – the Constitutions are what makes us Jesuit’ So this January – we are encouraged to have a ‘sapiential‘ reading of the Constitutions of the Jesuits. Sapiential reading, reading wisely, listening with the heart – as opposed to a purely academic or dry technical reading.I think we are all relieved to just be in the same place for a month! Our feet on the ground and some valuable reading and reflection time. The experiences have been so rich that is good to do a bit of ‘digesting’. And we are very priveleged to have this space and time, but also to have the lense of the Constitutions to do so.
Some approach the Constitutions with a bit of trepidation – calling it the ‘Law’ of the Society of Jesus (which of course we all fall short of). But maybe the approach taken below in the video – of a former US Tertian Master – is more helpful, more ‘sapiential’ .
We have been enjoying two days in Baguio City – it feels a little like our base camp – before we are sent to our respectives areas for Christmas. It has been nice to relax and acclimatise away from the heat and noise of Manila. Known as the “Summer Capital” Filipinos by their thousands flock to Baguio to enjoy family vacations in the cool temperatures and dry air of the mountains. The City is at an altitude higher than Ben Nevis – and was developed by the Americans as a resort town in the mountains. The Jesuits have a beautiful house called Mirador. It sits at the top of one of the hills in Baguio and has itself become a tourist hotspot. Over a hundred years ago, Spanish Jesuits built a Grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes which is accessible by climbing 252 steps! And at the weekends it attracts many Phillipinos as much for the views it commands as for devotional reasons. Anyway we all managed to make it up the steps with our full packs- a little bit of training before the Christmas masses in the Mountains.
Mirador was once the site of a Jesuit Observatory and Seismology Station early in the last century which has since relocated to Manila. For 20 years it became the theologate for the expelled Chinese Jesuits (at the time of Mao) – who have since moved on to Taiwan. Now Mirador is a retreat/villa house for Jesuits who needed to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is under the management of the CLC. Tonight – four of us are catching a night bus to Tabuk – where we will be assigned our areas by the Bishop. The journey may be about 12 hours – we have to go the long way round because the direct road is closed due to a combination of landslides and warring tribes!! Please keep us in your prayers.
For me the highlight of our tour of Baguio has been visiting a quite remarkable work by the Good Shepherd Sisters. They have been training and educating many of the young people from the remoter regions of the Mountain Provinces. At first they had to rely on begging to support such scholarships – but now they have built up an incredible social enterprise where the youngsters support themselves through studies through a series of practical work – from making a nationally famous strawberry jam, coffee, baking, needlework, making peanut brittle. In 1990 there was a terrible earthquake which destroyed much of the plant – and so the sisters considered pulling out – but the youngsters insisted that as long as they could still be educated they would carry on the work for free until they built up the business again. Another important element of the sisters work is to encourage the youngsters to be proud of their indigenous heritage (see pic) – and to preserve it as it is often looked down on by the locals! You can read about this remarkable and inspiring project here -journey form charity to social enterprise.
I have made a small video called a taste of Baguio – it shows you some of the scenery, a beautiful hermitage in the grounds of the retreat house, the stained glass windows with the famous rice terraces and indigenous villagers depicted (where we will be giving our Christmas Ministries), also some of the work of the sisters, as well as a lovely scene outside the Cathedral in Baguio, with two young girls enchanted by the angelic Holy-water stoops and learning to bless themselves, Don’t worry it is only 90 seconds long!
St Lorenzo Ruiz
At last! We have finished the retreat – we are out of the silence. Talking and listening to my fellow tertians the shared feeling is one of renewal and deep gratitude. The proto-martyr of the Phillipines, St Lorenzo Ruiz, on his death in Japan said If I had a thousand lives – all of them I will offer to Him. A beautiful hymn in Tagalog has been composed to this by a remarkably creative young Jesuit – Manoling Fransisco . We sang the hymn together at the final mass of the retreat, and it was a lovely way to sum up the feelings in my heart.
I think for Ignatius the primary sin is not of pride but of ingratitude. As someone once said to me that Gratitude is the least of the virtues, but ingratitude is the worst of vices. It seems to me that the unhappiest people you meet in life, are those who take things for granted or even worse are locked into a mindset of ‘the world owes me a living’. This gratitude at the end of the retreat is expressed by a beautiful prayer of ‘giving back’ that is treasured by all Jesuits. It is often referred to by its Latin Title The Suscipe…..
Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.
The Suscipe is a radical prayer of total self-giving, the fruit of self-reflection and of openness to God’s love. Very close to the heart of St Ignatius…… I think the happiest, most joyful people you meet in life are the ones who can say this prayer, roll it around in their heart, habitually.
Thanks for all the comments left – and the interest shown – Now can anyone tell me what happened in the world in the month of November?