Cross in cave at Zakopane, Poland; Greyfriars’ chapel, Canterbury.
Saint Francis caused the book of the Gospels to be brought unto him; for God had put it in his mind that, by the opening of the book of the Gospels three times, that which it was the will of God to do unto him should be revealed. And, when the book was brought unto him, St. Francis betook himself to prayer; and, when he had finished his prayer, he caused the book to be opened three times by the hand of Friar Leo, in the name of the Most Holy Trinity; and, as it pleased the Divine Providence, in those three times ever there appeared before him the Passion of Christ.
The next day came, to wit the day of the most Holy Cross, and St. Francis, betimes in the morning, or ever it was day, betook himself to prayer before the entrance of his cell, and turning his face towards the East, prayed after this manner: “O my Lord Jesus Christ, two graces do I beseech Thee to grant me before I die: the first, that, during my lifetime, I may feel in my soul and in my body, so far as may be possible, that pain which Thou, sweet Lord, didst suffer in the hour of Thy most bitter passion; the second is that I may feel in my heart, so far as may be possible, that exceeding love, whereby Thou, Son of God, wast enkindled to willingly bear such passion for us sinners”.
And, when he had continued long time in this prayer, he knew that God would hear him, and that, as far as was possible for a mere creature, so far would it be granted to him to feel the aforesaid things. Having this promise, St. Francis began to contemplate with very great devotion the Passion of Christ and His infinite charity.
We were celebrating the Season of Creation during September, so these posts are about a month later than the events they record.
Have we not had enough of war? But it doesn’t stop and it doesn’t stop hurting. We are reviewing this book now to allow you to buy it before November begins. There are thirty mini chapters, hence you could choose to read one per day through the month.
Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note: War is a small collection of letters written during various conflicts from ancient times to 2016 and the Iraq war. There is heartbreak here, to know that many of the fighters, willing or reluctant, never returned to friends and family, or went home changed and traumatised by what they had seen and done. ‘Instead of a yellow streak, the men got a mean streak down their backs.’ (p24) ‘All the wounded were killed in a most horrible way … you will see all sorts of accounts in the papers and no end of lies.’ p102.
These letters bring home the reality in a different way to television news. There are always no end of lies, always men who get mean in order to survive but cannot live with themselves later; fighters who endure shell shock and post-traumatic stress.
There’s a special poignancy about the first Christmas of the Great War, when men from England and Germany came together between the front lines, in all friendship, ‘but of course it will start and tomorrow we shall be at it hard killing one another’. (p80)
Go and buy this little book, read and pay attention. The human beings, the animals, the environment devastated by war are depicted truthfully, for these letters were written not for publication but to friends and family, sons and daughters, mothers, wives and partners, friends on the same or opposite sides; officials to officials.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
For forty years now, Prisons Week has encouraged Christian individuals and churches to pray for the needs of all those affected by prisons: prisoners and their families, victims of crime and their communities, those working in the criminal justice system and the many people caring for those affected by crime inside and outside our prisons.
Prisons Week raises awareness and generates prayer. It motivates volunteers to step forward and give their time and gifts, in prisons and in their own communities. It provides an annual focus and reason for Christians to work together, building capacity and motivation to make a difference for people who are out of sight and often out of mind.
Today is Prisons Sunday – the second Sunday in October – marking the beginning of the week of prayer, which runs until Saturday.
Here’s a reflection from our friend Eddie Gilmore of the London Irish Chaplaincy, which supports Irish prisoners in England. It shows how effective this ministry can be, in God’s good time.
“We never know, at the time, the ripple of consequences set in motion by the slightest act of kindness.” Those words of the late Jonathan Sacks seem especially apt in the case of a man helped recently by the Irish Chaplaincy.
One of our team, Fiona, had, before the pandemic, begun to visit a Traveller man in one of the big London prisons. He was in segregation, ‘seg’, due to making threats to prison staff and having a weapon smuggled into the prison via a corrupt officer. His original sentence had been four years but he had served sixteen due to poor compliance and aggressive behaviour. Like many of those we meet in prison he had lived a chaotic lifestyle. His childhood included his father committing suicide when he was ten and his mother becoming a drug addict shortly afterwards. I can imagine that he had not received a great deal of kindness growing up. Tragically several of his sons are also in the criminal justice system. Fiona took an interest in him and she would often tell me in supervision about the hilarious comments he would make about various things. He was clearly responding to someone simply giving him a bit of positive attention and treating him in a different way to how he was probably used to being treated.
With prison visiting not possible through the lockdown the contact continued via phone. His aggressive behaviour diminished. He also heard that Fiona had managed to get two other Traveller men from the same prison into a rehab. facility following their release and he began to see this as a possible future option for himself. Eventually Fiona managed to get him considered for parole, and supported him closely through the process. And then one morning we all received an e-mail from Fiona with the incredible news that the parole outcome had been successful. He has just been released and has gone voluntarily into the rehab facility. It’s very early days and there is a lot of anxiety on his part but for him to have got to this point from where he was is nothing short of miraculous.
My background will have been very different to that of the man mentioned above: a stable home with a loving family and lots of opportunities. And yet, there have particular times in my own life when a simple act of kindness has been transformative, and has almost certainly inspired in me the wish to do likewise to others. When I eat my pre- big cycle bowl of porridge I’m often reminded of an act of kindness that was shown to me over twenty years ago. When spending a year in Seoul with Yim Soon and our three then young children I used to go once a month to spend twenty-four hours with the Columbans, a bunch of very welcoming and very entertaining Irish missionary priests (and it was the Columbans who founded the Irish Chaplaincy back in 1957). It was a little oasis for me: a chance to rest, relax, speak English, hear some funny stories, drink ‘real’ tea. One time at breakfast one of the guys, Pat Muldoon, was served with a big bowl of porridge which had been made specially for him. A usual Korean breakfast is much like lunch or dinner: rice together with various side dishes, some of them very spicy, a bowl of soup, meat, maybe even some raw fish for a special treat! He must have seen my eyes light up at the sight of the porridge because he put the bowl in front of me and walked off. True enough, after months of Korean style breakfasts, delicious as they were, all I wanted that morning was a bowl of simple, plain porridge served with a little sprinkling of sugar and a little bit of milk. I’ll never ever forget that gesture of Pat that meant the world to me at the time, nor the words he said to me on every visit, “Be nice to yourself.”
Sacks goes on to say that every day gives each of us an opportunity to change a life and by so doing to change the world, and he concludes that, “We mend the world one life at a time, one act at a time, one day at a time,” and that, “Every good act, every healing gesture, lights a candle of hope in a dark world.”
(Quotes taken from: ‘To heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility’ by Jonathan Sacks)
Then Friar Leo, obedient, stood still and waited for him, with such fear that, as he afterwards told his companions, he would rather, at that moment, that the earth had swallowed him up than wait for Saint Francis, who he thought was angered with him; because with very great diligence he took heed not to offend his fatherhood, lest, through fault of his, Saint Francis should deprive him of his company.
When he had come up to him, Saint Francis asked him: “Who art thou?” and Friar Leo, all trembling, replied: “My father, I am Friar Leo”; and Saint Francis said unto him: “Wherefore didst thou come hither, friar little sheep? Did I not tell thee not to come and watch me? For holy obedience, tell me whether thou sawest or heardest aught.” Friar Leo replied: “Father, I heard thee speak and say many times: ‘Who art Thou, my most sweet God? What am I, most vile worm and Thine unprofitable servant?'” And then Friar Leo, kneeling down before St. Francis, confessed himself guilty of disobedience, in that he had done contrary to his commandment, and besought his pardon with many tears. And thereafter he prayed him devoutly that he would explain those words which he had heard, and would tell him those which he had not understood.
Then, seeing that to the humble Friar Leo God had revealed or granted to hear and to see certain things, by reason of his simplicity and purity, Saint Francis condescended to reveal and to explain unto him that which he asked; and he spake as follows: “Know, friar little sheep of Jesus Christ, that when I was saying those words which thou heardest, then were shown unto me two lights for my soul; the one of knowledge and understanding of my own self, the other of knowledge and understanding of the Creator. When I said: ‘Who art thou, O my most sweet God?’ then I was in a light of contemplation wherein I saw the abyss of the infinite goodness and wisdom and power of God; and when I said: ‘What am I?’ I was in a light of contemplation in the which I beheld the depth of my baseness and misery; and therefore I said: ‘Who art Thou, Lord of infinite goodness and wisdom, that deignest to visit me, that am a vile worm and abominable?’
And in that flame which thou sawest was God; who in that form spake with me, even as of old He spake unto Moses. And, among other things which He said unto me, He asked me to give Him three gifts; and I made answer: ‘Lord, I am all Thine; Thou knowest well that I have nothing beside the habit and the cord and the breeches, and even these three things are Thine; what then can I offer or give unto Thy majesty?’ Then God said unto me: ‘Search in thy bosom, and give Me that which thou findest therein’. I searched and found a ball of gold; and I offered it to God; and thus did I three times, even as God three times commanded me; and thereafter I kneeled me down three times and blessed and thanked God who had given me wherewith to offer Him. And straightway, it was given me to understand that these three offerings signified holy obedience, highest poverty and most resplendent chastity; the which God, through His grace, hath permitted me to observe so perfectly that my conscience accuseth me of nothing.
And as thou sawest me put my hands in my bosom and offer to God those three virtues symbolised by those three balls of gold, which God had placed in my bosom; so hath God given me such virtue in my soul that, for all the benefits and all the graces which He hath granted me of His most holy goodness, I ever praise and magnify Him with heart and mouth. These are the words which thou heardest when I thrice lifted up my hands, as thou sawest. But look to it, friar little sheep, that thou watch me no more; but return to thy cell with the blessing of God, and do thou have diligent care of me; because, a few days from now, God will do such great and marvellous things upon this mountain that all the world shall wonder thereat; for He will do certain new things, the which He hath never done unto any creature in this world.”
And, when he had spoken these words, he caused the book of the Gospels to be brought unto him; for God had put it in his mind that, by the opening of the book of the Gospels three times, that which it was the will of God to do unto him should be revealed.
We have not read from the Little Flowers of Saint Francis for months, perhaps because we have been nearing the end of the book. Let’s make up for that by starting the account of the imprinting of the Stigmata. Francis at this time is living solitary a little way from the rest of the order. Brother Leo is his chief point of contact with his brethren; he used to recite the office with Francis – if Francis responded to his salutation …
Coming to the third reflection on the seraphic vision and the imprinting of the most holy Stigmata; as the time of the feast of the most holy Cross drew near, (14 September), one night Brother Leo went to the wonted place and at the wonted hour for to say Matins with Saint Francis, and when he said Domine, labia mea aperies* from the bridge-head as was his wont, Saint Francis made no answer. Brother Leo did not go back again, as Saint Francis had given him commandment; but with a good and holy intention, he crossed the bridge and entered softly into his cell, and not finding him, he thought that he might be praying somewhere in the wood; wherefore he came out again, and by the light of the moon went softly searching through the wood. At last he heard the voice of Saint Francis, and, drawing near, saw him on his knees in prayer, with face and hands raised up to Heaven; and in fervour of spirit he was saying: “Who art thou, O most sweet my God? What am I, most vile worm and Thine unprofitable servant?” And these words he said again and again, and spake no word beside.
Brother Leo, marvelling thereat, lifted up his eyes unto heaven, and as he looked, he saw coming down from heaven a torch of flame exceeding beautiful and bright, which, descending, rested on the head of Saint Francis; and out of the flame there came a voice that spake with Saint Francis, but Brother Leo could not understand the words. Hearing this, and deeming himself unworthy to stand so close to the holy place where that wondrous apparition was revealed, and fearing moreover to offend Saint Francis and disturb him in his contemplation, if perchance he should perceive him, he softly drew back, and standing afar off, waited to see the end: and gazing with eyes fixed, he saw Saint Francis stretch out his hands three times to the flame: and after a long space of time he saw the flame return to heaven.
Gladdened by the vision, he softly turned away to go to his cell again. And as he was going softly, deeming himself unseen, Saint Francis was aware of him by the rustling of the leaves beneath his feet, and bade him wait for him, and not to move.
* The first words of Morning Prayer (Matins): Lord, open my lips (and my mouth will declare thy praise.)
Doctor Johnson, unwell and soon to die, is visiting his home town, and answering letters from London. The recent flights of a hot air balloon attracted much attention in London, and set Johnson thinking. Around 200 years later I was in Lichfield when a hot air balloon flew over. We called to the old lady next-door but one, who was glad to have seen it. but even in the 1980’s, even in the 2020’s indeed, their course cannot be directed so as that it should serve any purposes of communication, a hot air balloon is simply an amusement. But Asthma is better understood; perhaps the relatively clean air of Lichfield helped Johnson’s breathing.
Lichfield, Sept. 29.
On one day I had three letters about the air-balloon: yours was far the best, and has enabled me to impart to my friends in the country an idea of this species of amusement. In amusement, mere amusement, I am afraid it must end, for I do not find that its course can be directed so as that it should serve any purposes of communication; and it can give no new intelligence of the state of the air at different heights, till they have ascended above the height of mountains, which they seem never likely to do.
I came hither on the 27th. How long I shall stay I have not determined. My dropsy is gone, and my asthma much remitted, but I have felt myself a little declining these two days, or at least to-day; but such vicissitudes must be expected. One day may be worse than another; but this last month is far better than the former; if the next should be as much better than this, I shall run about the town on my own legs.
The fate of the balloon I do not much lament (it had been destroyed by fire): to make new balloons, is to repeat the jest again. We now know a method of mounting into the air, and, I think, are not likely to know more. The vehicles can serve no use till we can guide them; and they can gratify no curiosity till we mount with them to greater heights than we can reach without; till we rise above the tops of the highest mountains, which we have yet not done. We know the state of the air in all its regions, to the top of Teneriffe, and therefore, learn nothing from those who navigate a balloon below the clouds. The first experiment, however, was bold, and deserved applause and reward. But since it has been performed, and its event is known, I had rather now find a medicine that can ease an asthma.’
From Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784 by James Boswell.
Doctor Johnson had a few thoughts on pilgrimage: In Autumn 1773, he made his way to the Island of Iona (or Icolmkill) in Scotland with James Boswell, who recorded:
When we had landed upon the sacred place, which, as long as I can remember, I had thought on with veneration, Dr. Johnson and I cordially embraced. We had long talked of visiting Icolmkill; and, from the lateness of the season, were at times very doubtful whether we should be able to effect our purpose. To have seen it, even alone, would have given me great satisfaction; but the venerable scene was rendered much more pleasing by the company of my great and pious friend, who was no less affected by it than I was; and who has described the impressions it should make on the mind, with such strength of thought, and energy of language, that I shall quote his words, as conveying my own sensations much more forcibly than I am capable of doing:—
‘We were now treading that illustrious Island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion. To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me, and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!’
Johnson says in Rasselas, ch. xi:—’That the supreme being may be more easily propitiated in one place than in another is the dream of idle superstition; but that some places may operate upon our own minds in an uncommon manner is an opinion which hourly experience will justify. He who supposes that his vices may be more successfully combated in Palestine will, perhaps, find himself mistaken, yet he may go thither without folly; he who thinks they will be more freely pardoned dishonours at once his reason and religion.’
( both from “Life of Johnson, Volume 5 ” by James Boswell)
October Intention for Evangelisation: – Missionary Disciples
We pray that every baptised person may be engaged in evangelisation, and available to the mission, by being witnesses of a life that has the flavour of the Gospel.
How do you witness in an anonymous city, going home to a tower block where you know few of your neighbours? Maybe I start by being available. Available for a smile, a word of thanks, a door held open. Then Christ can smile, speak, open other doors because of my small acts.
We are moving slowly, gently, through Autumn into winter again. I passed this spot the other evening: it’s no longer a car park, but has been adopted by skate-boarders and roller skaters for practising their skills. The trees and bushes behind the railway fence are as inaccessible to humans as ever so provide safe roosting for little birds through the dark nights. Even our messiest corners can be used creatively by other creatures.
Last year we had the sparrows in residence, last week it was the starlings, chuckling away in chorus as I walked by. They were close at hand but out of sight in the gloaming, so here they are getting together one afternoon before flying off to gather in greater numbers on their way to the roost.
In this section Pope Francis looks to Saint Francis of Assisi as an example to follow.
I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast.
He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.
11. Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.
12. What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wisdom 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Romans 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty. Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.
Of course, the temptation is never far away to see the world as a problem to be solved. It is perhaps then that we need to stop thinking and start singing! We must refuse to turn the world about us into an object to be used and controlled for short term gain. Creatures are our sisters and brothers.