This hymn by Sister Mary Xavier was a staple of my childhood. It is worth turning to when life seems pointless or confusing, and ‘Lord, for tomorrow and its needs I do not pray‘ is enough of a motto, enough of a prayer, to see us through every day. A vocation is something to be lived out day by day; sometimes a day can be very different to what we expect, but today is enough for us; we can worry about tomorrow when it comes.
Lord, for tomorrow and its needs I do not pray; keep me, my God, from stain of sin just for today.
Let me both diligently work and duly pray; Let me be kind in word and deed, just for today.
Let me be slow to do my will, prompt to obey; help me to sacrifice myself, just for today.
Let me no wrong or idle word unthinking say; set thou a seal upon my lips just for today.
Lord, for tomorrow and its needs I do not pray; but keep me, guide me, love me, Lord, just for today.
Lyrics by Sybil Farish Partidge (1856 – 1917) – alias Sister Mary Xavier. Public Domain.
Sister Johanna’s reflection yesterday reminds me of the time when, talking to Philippe, a Missionary of Africa, I described my work with children and teenagers who were excluded from school. His response was, ‘First of all, you have to love them.’
Talking to my colleagues over the years, I came to realise how true this was of all of them, though they would more likely have spoken about ‘getting alongside’ the young people and their families; loving is not a recognised professional activity. Yet some tutors kept a supply of children’s clothes and shoes, either for their pupil or a sibling; I’ve known outgrown bikes and beds to be supplied by tutors, while home-made cakes and preserves showed that we cared without ‘giving charity’.
All this contributed to establishing trust between families on the margin and professional teachers; a trust that could not be taken for granted. The young people and their parents were often Sister Johanna’s
so-called “sinners” … people who were thought to be involved in all sorts of iniquitous practices, whose entire life-style was considered morally dubious at best. I daresay that then as now, there were people relegated to this group who were essentially honest but had fallen on very hard times, people for whom earning a living had proved impossible, and for reasons beyond their control. But many will have been truly as dishonest and even criminal as they were thought to be, and all were deeply wounded people for one reason or another. This is a crowd of seeming failures – if you judge success by the sleek appearance of it. And this is something Jesus never did.
I would not have you see my families as stained glass saints, far from it: in many cases they really were dishonest and criminal, and not necessarily skilled crooks, so they tended to get caught. One father was later murdered by a drug dealer; a dear boy was murdered by his stepfather; assault and theft were not uncommon. More than once I was warned not to visit alone, but then the question ‘What would Jesus do?’ was easy to answer: this is my job today and today this is my vocation.
‘Will, you come and sit here and tell me I’m a good mum. You know I’m not!’
‘That’s not what your children say, is it?’
Her children did not judge her by appearances. Part of my job, my vocation, one of the parts not mentioned in any job description, was to vindicate her children by helping that mother find the good mother in her heart. Perhaps we should dare to remove the masks and let Jesus breathe on us, then take his healing grace to the battered souls crowding around us.
The tax-collectors and sinners were all crowding round to listen to Jesus. This is what St Luke reports in 15:1. This line is worth lingering over. Sometimes only one sentence is enough to tell a story of its own. As I repeat these words slowly to myself, my imagination fixes on Jesus. He’s not talking to scribes and Pharisees for a change. Good – because he has such a hard time whenever he is dealing with the synagogue officials. They don’t want to hear what he has to say, they pretend interest but are always preparing a trap. Of course, they never get the better of Jesus. He seems to handle these encounters effortlessly and he is never wrong-footed by them. But I feel certain that these encounters were very painful for Jesus: discouraging, and exhausting.
So, by contrast, here is Jesus in the centre of a very different crowd – one that is sincerely interested. These were people one would not usually associate with religion, or with much else that was respectable, for they were the type of people that find themselves on the outside of respectability, looking in. They were the type that most cultures reject. They were labelled tax collectors and sinners by the culture of Jesus’ day. And Jesus loved to be with these people. On this occasion, as on every occasion when he sees his that his words are welcomed, he must have been deeply moved by their interest and love. These are the ones who allow him to reach their hearts – and he wants this ardently himself. He came into the world to reach all people, but reaching such cast-offs is a matter of urgency for him. These are the ones who have probably never been given a break in their lives. Tax-collectors were generally considered a dishonest bunch at that time, most of them reputed to abuse their position in order to grab a cut of whatever money they collected from people who were already poor to begin with. And so-called “sinners” were people who were thought to be involved in all sorts of iniquitous practices, whose entire life-style was considered morally dubious at best. I daresay that then as now, there were people relegated to this group who were essentially honest but had fallen on very hard times, people for whom earning a living had proved impossible, and for reasons beyond their control. But many will have been truly as dishonest and even criminal as they were thought to be, and all were deeply wounded people for one reason or another. This is a crowd of seeming failures – if you judge success by the sleek appearance of it. And this is something Jesus never did.
This is the bunch who “crowded around Jesus” – and not because they wanted a hand-out from him. He had walked into their lives and they were bowled over by him. They had never met anyone like him. Our text indicates that we are not dealing with just one or two from this sector of society. It says they were “all” crowding around Jesus. Luke is talking about a lot of people here. How did Jesus manage to reach them? Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been there as an invisible observer to see how he looked at them, for example, to hear what he said, to note the words he chose, and to see these tough characters melt, and the deeply hurt ones lift up their heads. By his radiant and gentle personality, by his words that showed he understood everything that had ever hurt them, Jesus cracks open the hard shell of their hearts and eases them away from their distrust and fear of him. And there they were – crowding around Jesus, bumping each other, trying to get closer to him. They wanted to hear what he was saying, to “listen to him.” These aren’t usually the types to go in for sermons, but Jesus was different. Very different. His word was hope and forgiveness. Everything about him was a message of peace.
This is where I stopped reading and placed myself in that crowd. Is there anyone who has a completely clear conscience? If so, perhaps this isn’t the bible passage for you. But if you have anything you regret on your conscience, if you bear remorse like a constant and heavy load on your back, if shame is your daily companion join this crowd. That’s right, squeeze in there, between the bag lady and the guy with long, stringy hair hanging down his back. Look at Jesus. He is looking at you, he sees you join this group, he catches your eye for a moment and smiles a beautiful warm one right into your face. He’s talking. You are able to move in closer. Miraculously, the others make room for you and glance at you with understanding – they are catching something of Jesus’ own tenderness. What do you hear Jesus saying?
There have been two times this year when I breathed more freely, both occurred when the weather was fine, but that was not the only reason.
We go back, first of all, to the Monday when schools reopened for all pupils. I don’t know if any homework was set that day, but I was walking through the city around 5.00 p.m. and there was a tangible air of joy around the place. It felt as if every teenager had gone home and dressed in their best and now they were gathering in the parks, on the steps of the theatre, in the disused car park – now adopted by skate-boarders, roller-skaters and people too young legally to use the electric scooters scattered around the town.
Everywhere though, the buzz of face to face chatter. It was so good to witness the love and solidarity bubbling up all around the town.
There followed weeks of inclement weather, a cold, dry, April, a cold, wet May. Dedicated walkers ventured out, many people did not seem to. Then the last long weekend in May that came with a bank holiday Monday was endowed with sunshine and warmth. This picture was taken quite early in the Saturday in one of the big city centre parks. The building in the background is Tower House, official residence of the Lord Mayor. The River Stour flows along the left of the picture behind a stone wall. It is liable to flood in wintertime but now entices young and old to look for fish or feed the ducks. When my grandson was 18 months old he ran across the grass to join some Italian students playing rugby. The lawns are also popular for picnics.
I wonder when we will be welcoming language students again, but that weekend it was good to see our own young people and families enjoying each other’s company. Long may it continue.
One day earlier this month, my walk took me through Canterbury cemetery once again. This time I saluted a few familiar names, since I passed near the Catholic corner, but then wandered into an older section I’d not visited before and found two passion flower crosses to add to our collection. One was covered in multicoloured lichen and not suitable for reproduction, but then there was this, erected in the first years of the XX Century.
It combines the Celtic Cross, the Greek Letters IHS – short for Jesus – at its centre, with the halo of passion vine leaves around it, and the passion vine itself, bringing the Cross to flowering splendour.
The passion flower represents the saving death of Jesus. There are ten petals for the ten apostles who did not deny him – leaving out Peter and Judas. There are five stamens representing the five wounds; three stigma for the nails, and the fringe of filaments around the flower stands for the crown of thorns. The beauty of the flower proclaims the resurrection.
By carving this flower over their dear ones’ graves, the family were indeed proclaiming that the dead would rise again with Christ. When you see a passion flower let it remind you that Jesus is real, his death was real, as indeed will ours be – but so, too, will our rising. And when you see a passion flower on a gravestone, pray for those lying there.
Foul-cankering rust the hidden treasure frets, But gold that’s put to use more gold begets.
From “Venus and Adonis” by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare echoes the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) which shows gold becoming fertile in its own way, and also languishing useless underground. This happened to treasure that my brothers and I hid once when on holiday in Wales. Perhaps we felt that this hidden treasure was a sacrifice that would draw us back to the little resort where we had enjoyed a week of happiness with both our parents available. Our treasure was a hoard of beer bottle tops from the Border Brewery, which came in different colours according to the brew in each bottle, and carried a picture of a Welsh dragon. Our source was not our Dad’s empties, but a nearby pub’s backyard. We thought we’d marked the spot where we’d hidden them, 12 inches from the telegraph pole near the holiday house, but the next year we failed to find it.
If only we’d had a metal detector! I think the spot is covered by the North Wales Expressway now, so we can forget about looking for our treasure, and decades later, the tops will surely be fretted away, though I do know someone who would be very grateful for a set of tops from a long defunct brewery.
A more generally exciting buried treasure was discovered in Staffordshire a few years ago. Being largely of gold, it has survived, though battered at the time of burial and in the 13 or 14 centuries since. If you have an hour between trains in Birmingham, you should be able to get to the museum and admire what’s on show – if you can get yourself past the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and the other treasures there.
The processional crosses and other liturgical objects were saved from destruction, but whoever hid them may have been killed in battle before retrieving them, or like us boys, may have misremembered the clues. We can admire the art while regretting that this gold will never again be put to its original use. Not that that should stop us from offering a silent prayer of wonder and gratitude. These gloriously playful designs speak of artists at ease in their faith, bringing their joyfulness to their work, as Hopkins did in his poetry.
Thomas Becket was the focus of pilgrimage to Canterbury from his death in 1170 to the destruction of his shrine in 1538. This exhibition at the city’s Beaney Museum is only running to 4 July, so it might be as well to try and book now, though you can take a chance and turn up and hope for a slot.
Sat 29th May 2021 to Sun 4th July 2021
A major exhibition in the context of Becket’s story, Canterbury pilgrimage and health & wellbeing. 2020 marked the 900th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s birth, 850th of his death, and 800th of moving Becket’s relics to a new tomb and chapel in Canterbury Cathedral.
Miracles after Becket’s murder, recorded in stained glass, led to Europe-wide spread of relics and images, making Becket a world ‘celebrity’. As well as presenting this story, displays will explore Becket’s fame as a symbol of conflict between Church and state, conscience and duty.
Photographs, designs and cartoons will feature portrayals in theatre and film from Henry Irving to Richard Burton, and writers including Tennyson and Eliot creating Becket’s enduring legacy as a rebel.
The exhibition will be part of a programme of events developed by partners from across the UK and a platform to commemorate the remarkable life and death of Thomas Becket.
The exhibition showcases loans from The British Museum, The Arts Council Collection, University of Kent , Canterbury Cathedral and Canterbury Museums & Gallery.
In old age Johnson observed: I hope GOD will yet grant me a little longer life, and make me less unfit to appear before him.
Life of Johnson by James Boswell.
Amen to both these prayers!
When Johnson visited Skye in the late XVIII Century, the crossing from the mainland was by boat – rowing boat – the bridge would have been unimaginable. The rain, and the rainbow, were facts of everyday life. And still are.
‘When Mr. Vesey was proposed as a member of the LITERARY CLUB, Mr. Burke began by saying that he was a man of gentle manners.
“Sir, said Johnson, you need say no more. When you have said a man of gentle manners; you have said enough.”‘
‘The late Mr. Fitzherbert told Mr. Langton that Johnson said to him, “Sir, a man has no more right to say an uncivil thing, than to act one; no more right to say a rude thing to another than to knock him down.”‘
Robert Hugh Benson was the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury who became a Roman Catholic priest. He wrote many books based on his faith, including The History of Richard Raynal, Solitary, which takes the form of a translation of a mediaeval manuscript life of an English hermit, written by his parish priest. The writer went to visit his parishioner on the feast of Corpus Christi*; in those days there was much more forest cover in Southern England than we enjoy today.
I set out through the wood. I was greatly encouraged by the beauty of the light as I went down; the sun shone through the hazels on my right, and the roof of leaves was a fair green over my head; and to right and left lay a carpet of flowers as blue as the Flanders’ glass above the altar. I had learnt from Master Richard, though he was thirty years my younger, many beautiful lessons, and one of them that God’s Majesty speaks to us by the works of His almighty hands. So when I saw the green light and the gold and the blue, and the little flies that made merry in the way, I took courage.
The History of Richard Raynal, Solitary by Robert Hugh Benson
The forest could be a dangerous place in those times, and the good man would not have had an electric torch to guide him home. Let us pray for all those who live in forested areas and are suffering persecution from armed gangs and invaders robbing, kidnapping and killing them, in order to wrest control of the natural resources that should be providing a measure of stability to their lives through legitimate trade. Pray especially for the Church in Eastern Congo.
* The feast is celebrated today in England, according to my calendar.