It used to be one of the standard questions in those short celebrity interviews: Who (or what) do you see in the mirror in the morning? Perhaps it’s been quietly dropped because interviewees came to expect it and had answers ready, answers to sell their new film, tv show or book.
Saint James would have us look into a mirror, a looking glass. We like mirrors, here at Agnellus’, even when they make us look ridiculous.
But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if a man be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he shall be compared to a man beholding his own countenance in a glass. For he beheld himself, and went his way, and presently forgot what manner of man he was.
But he that hath looked into the perfect law of liberty, and hath continued therein, not becoming a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work; this man shall be blessed in his deed.
The mirror to see ourselves in is the ‘perfect law of liberty’: how do we use the liberty we have been given, or would have been given if our hands had not been clenched, deep in our pockets? We will never reach the day’s end without refusing or abusing our liberty in some way, great or small, but we can look into the mirror of liberty, and with our God-given freedom, do better tomorrow.
Two Hundred and forty six years ago, Dr Johnson and James Boswell were on the Isle of Raasay in the Hebrides, making for Skye and thence for home. No regular Calmac ferry then! Indeed they had waited in the islands for clement weather to allow the rowing boats to set out. Now the conversation grew serious; can one die contented? Johnson’s answer is comprehensive, and reminds me of the old catechism answer: God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next. We rely on his mercy for the latter.
More of Boswell’s idiosyncratick spelling!
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12. It was a beautiful day, and although we did not approve of travelling on Sunday, we resolved to set out, as we were in an island from whence one must take occasion as it serves. Macleod and Talisker sailed in a boat of Rasay’s for Sconser, to take the shortest way to Dunvegan. M’Cruslick went with them to Sconser, from whence he was to go to Slate, and so to the main land. We were resolved to pay a visit at Kingsburgh, and see the celebrated Miss Flora Macdonald, who is married to the present Mr. Macdonald of Kingsburgh; so took that road, though not so near.
All the family, but Lady Rasay, walked down to the shore to see us depart. Rasay himself went with us in a large boat, with eight oars, built in his island; as did Mr. Malcolm M’Cleod, Mr. Donald M’Queen, Dr. Macleod, and some others. We had a most pleasant sail between Rasay and Sky; and passed by a cave, where Martin says fowls were caught by lighting fire in the mouth of it. Malcolm remembers this. But it is not now practised, as few fowls come into it.
We spoke of Death. Dr. Johnson on this subject observed, that the boastings of some men, as to dying easily, were idle talk, proceeding from partial views. I mentioned Hawthornden’s Cypress-grove, where it is said that the world is a mere show; and that it is unreasonable for a man to wish to continue in the show-room, after he has seen it. Let him go cheerfully out, and give place to other spectators.
JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, if he is sure he is to be well, after he goes out of it. But if he is to grow blind after he goes out of the show-room, and never to see any thing again; or if he does not know whither he is to go next, a man will not go cheerfully out of a show-room. No wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to go into a state of punishment. Nay, no wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to fall into annihilation: for however unhappy any man’s existence may be, he yet would rather have it, than not exist at all. No; there is no rational principle by which a man can die contented, but a trust in the mercy of GOD, through the merits of Jesus Christ.’
This short sermon, delivered with an earnest tone, in a boat upon the sea, which was perfectly calm, on a day appropriated to religious worship, while every one listened with an air of satisfaction, had a most pleasing effect upon my mind.
From “Life of Johnson, Vol 5 Tour to the Hebrides (1773)” by James Boswell.
‘In the psalms we have theology expressed poetically.’
To sing break-heartedly of light
Like dying sunflowers
Gathering to themselves their life,
Defying that which is their source.
Small suns, we grasp your wantonness
And would reverse your death.
Our poorness seize your gold.
But go you must,
Dear small reflections
Of so great a God,
We would you stay.
Sheila Billingsley, August 2019.
The sunflowers are indeed ‘gathering to themselves their life’ as Summer strolls into Autumn. The seed heads will turn to black, attracting the birds when they are hung up in the garden in weeks to come; we cannot seize their gold, but we can remember them, and save a few seeds to reflect God next year.
José Maria Cantal Rivas is a Missionary of Africa working in Algeria. During a sabbatical year he took a qualification as a Life Coach and is putting it to good use among young people. It is not his task to preach with the immediate intention of ‘Christianising’ his students, but to be a witness to Christ’s empowering love among them. Fr José Maria sees his work as a form of inculturalisation – getting alongside the people he is sent to bring the Good News to. He tells about his experiences in the article from which this post is extracted; the link below is to the French language original. How can we be Christ for young people in our own community?
‘My “students” come to realise that very often it is they themselves who are the chief obstacles and brakes impeding their own happiness. They have mentally forbidden themselves the right to imagine that their daily life could be different.
‘Many people seem to think that happiness will arrive one day in the post, in just one delivery, and when the parcel is opened, they will find happiness, all “ready to wear”. Very few are aware that to be happy, like body building, needs time to be given up to it; needs perseverance and discipline, as well as clear priorities and passion. There’s no other way!
The course is given in French and Arabic. Wherever possible I try to use examples, videos, personalities, literature from their Arab-Muslim culture: firstly to avoid any suspicion of proselytism, but above all to confirm that what I propose is practicable and compatible with their culture.
A short presentation by the Algerian women’s Paralympic basketball team, even if the sound quality is poor, has more impact that an excellent video from a similar team from a northen country!
Africa in general is changing and it seems to me that it’s good to know how Africans themselves, with their rich culture, face up to changes such as the spectacular rise in the numbers of women at university and in the world of work; the influence of the internet, demographic changes, new forms of social organisation, spiritual longings divorced from religion, urbanisation and so on.’
All they that saw me have laughed me to scorn: they have spoken with the lips, and wagged the head.
He hoped in the Lord, let him deliver him: let him save him, seeing he delighteth in him.
For many dogs have encompassed me: the council of the malignant hath besieged me.
They have dug my hands and feet. They have numbered all my bones.
And they have looked and stared upon me.
They parted my garments amongst them; and upon my vesture they cast lots.
But thou, O Lord, remove not thy help to a distance from me; look towards my defence.
I will declare thy name to my brethren: in the midst of the church will I praise thee.
Ye that fear the Lord, praise him: all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him.
Ps 22: 8-9; 17-20; 23-24.
In today’s Psalm it is clear that the malignant have set out to humiliate the writer. Stepping into his shoes for the moment, I think of moments when I’ve been in trouble, usually with other boys. Which was worse on these occasions – to be stared at silently by authority, or to be ignored while he or she finished the work on the desk before them? Either way, this was a theatrical act to arouse fear in the culprits.
But here authority goes further, parting the writer’s clothing, treating it like a set of raffle prizes, and leaving him naked, to be stared at. If they’d had electricity we can be sure they would have turned the floodlights on him, arousing even more primal fear.
And yet – ‘I will declare thy name to my brethren: in the midst of the church will I praise thee.’ So went the martyrs, singing and praising God to the scaffold, like William Richardson last month. They were following Jesus, confident that he would lead them through the Valley of Death that he had conquered. The martyrs witnessed to the truth of love and the love of truth. Neither Love nor Truth were conquered on Calvary.
But the suffering and death were real. We should not insulate ourselves from that, from the flesh and blood of Jesus that was ‘ill-used’, as perhaps those who defaced this altar piece were trying to do. Rather we must accept to carry each our own daily cross and follow him, declaring his name to our brethren.
Fr Tom Herbst has plenty of duties that keep him from writing regularly for the Mirror, but he recently shared this. I don’t need to comment further. Will.
A friend recently sent two quotations that he gleaned from the newspaper, which I will send on to you. Words of wisdom, I think: “If we accepted that Covid could besiege us for a long time to come we could start thinking how to be fulfilled and earn our livings despite it.”
“There are better and worse ways of handling the pandemic…..It’s about liberating us from the illusion that everything can be controlled and finding satisfaction in whatever lives we now lead.”
While his companions slept in the ruined church, Saint Francis threw himself on his knees to pray; and behold in the first watch of the night there come a great multitude of demons, exceeding fierce, with a great noise and tumult, and began to do him grievous battle whereby the one plucked him this way and the other one dragged him up and another down; one threatened him with one thing, and the other accused him of another; and thus they sought to distract him from his prayer; but they could not, for that God was with him.
Therefore whenas Saint Francis had enough endured the assaults of the demons, he began to cry in a loud voice: “O damned spirits, ye can do naught, save what the hand of God alloweth you: wherefore in the name of God Almighty I bid you do unto my body whatever is permitted you of God; for gladly shall I bear it, sith I have no greater enemy than my body: and therefore if you avenge me of mine enemy, ye will do me good service.” Then the demons with great fury and violence took hold of him, and began to drag him through the church, and to do him greater trouble and annoy than at the first.
Thereat Saint Francis began to cry aloud, and said: “My Lord Jesu Christ, I give Thee thanks for the great honour and charity that Thou showest me ; for it is a token of great love when the Lord punishes His servant for all his faults in this world, so that he be not punished in the next. And I am ready gladly to endure every pain and adversity, that Thou, my God, dost will to send me for my sins.”
Then the demons, put to confusion and vanquished by his patience and endurance, were away,
And Saint Francis in fervour of spirit left the church and entered into a wood that was there hard by, and threw himself upon his knees, in prayer; and with prayers and tears and beating of the breast he sought to find Jesu Christ, the spouse and the delight of his soul. And at the last finding Him in the secret places of his soul, he now bespake Him with reverence as his Lord, now made answer to Him as his judge, now besought Him as his father, now held converse with Him as with a friend.
I won’t attempt to diagnose away the experiences Francis’s companions witnessed in that dark night in the ruined church. But at the end he held converse with Jesus as a friend. May we do so in our turn.
Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham, for the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost.
Yesterday, we began to ponder these remarkable words of Jesus. Today, we can continue to turn these words over in our minds – as Zacchaeus must have done late that night when everyone else had fallen asleep. How healing Jesus’ words are.
There is no hesitation on Jesus’ part in accepting Zacchaeus’s promise. No cynical words, such as, “Ha. We’ll see how long this lasts. You’ve been a liar and a thief most of your life and now you expect us to believe that you will keep these promises?” Not a word was spoken to that effect. Such remarks would have immediately condemned Zacchaeus to failure, imprisoned him in his past. But that is emphatically not the way Jesus treats anyone: certainly not Zacchaeus, and not us. Instead, Jesus reinforces Zacchaeus’s good resolution by believing in it and in him. How creative and life-giving Jesus’ belief in Zacchaeus is for him.
Jesus also regards Zacchaeus’s promise as sufficient. There is no lecture from Jesus along the lines of, “Right, my good man. Is that all you mean to do? Repaying those you ruined four times the amount you stole is not as generous as it sounds! Those people need at least that much in order to start all over again. And as for giving half your property to the poor, you will barely even feel the loss, you have so much property as it is.” Jesus does not say anything of the sort here, nor does he ever do so. Jesus is friendship, love and forgiveness. So great is his mercy and love that he immediately accepts our good resolutions wholeheartedly and envisions them not as unfulfilled promises but as actual achievements, meriting praise. Today salvation has come to this house, he says. It has already happened. This is what friendship with Jesus means.
Jesus’ friendship gives us the grace of a conversion that almost seems to reach back in time and not merely forward. Jesus can give us a new heart, and new inner desires for goodness, along with the determination to act on these desires – as we see in Zacchaeus’s resolutions. Jesus’ forgiveness is one with his friendship, which means we enter into a continuous inner relationship with him who is goodness. He can therefore fill our present with potential for good – because we are with him. This can enable us to fulfil our potential for goodness by drawing on an inner store of grace and wisdom, which have their source in Jesus.
Zacchaeus had been an unhappy, wounded, even tragic person. He had managed to surround himself with the comforts of wealth, but he did so to the detriment of his emotional life and his need for human relationships. Jesus, simply by being Jesus, swept away the tragedy like fallen leaves in the autumn; Jesus awakened Zacchaeus both to his own human longings and to his deepest human potential. In awakening these longings, Jesus also immediately offered himself as the fulfillment of Zacchaeus’s longings, and as the power behind all his potential. This shows us what we may hope for from Jesus, our beloved Friend.
Perhaps we are tentatively groping toward something, and we do not know what it is. Maybe we are metaphorically on that tree branch, just watching, as Zacchaeus was. Maybe we see Jesus turning to us. Maybe we are very clear only about one thing: that we are lost. Zacchaeus’s story tells us that we can be confident that Jesus will befriend us, too, and offer us as much healing forgiveness, with as much joy as he gave to Zacchaeus. He will also ask something of us: to allow him, and his dearest companions, into our home. Today.
Just before our travels we attended NAIB’s doctoral graduation in Manchester, where we were addressed by the Chancellor, the poet Lemn Sissay. Eloquently, he urged the graduands to remember those who had made their higher education possible: their parents, their parents’ parents, and their parents before them.
He brought a tear to my eye. In my own family, my generation were the first to have that opportunity, though my mother completed her BA in her sixties. Both my parents left school at fourteen; poverty and ill-health limited life chances for them and many more.
I noticed, as the graduands stepped forward, the great diversity of backgrounds they must have come from. Some were overseas students, attracted to Manchester’s engineering expertise, but many were home grown, including some Muslims. Although the ceremonial expects the graduand to shake the Chancellor’s hand as token of receiving the degree, this gesture would have been an embarrassment for some; but Mr Sissay gracefully received and sent each one into the world with a bow, a smile, a gesture of total acceptance and goodwill.
What kind of world will a Muslim woman engineer be building? What understanding of classical civilisation will her veiled fellow graduate share with her own students?
Let us trust that God is working in strange and wondrous ways among the people (Psalm 96:3) and let us heed the call to make his paths straight (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3). Meeting the graduands half-way was the University and Lemn Sissay’s response to that challenge.
Even if we have little or no opportunity to foster interreligious dialogue, we can each of us rejoice in a neighbour’s accomplishment, or make even a couple of seconds of their lives more wondrous. That is part of our calling as children of God.