Tag Archives: breath

28 April: This is my body!

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We were put off by the grandiose monuments in the Conventual Franciscans’ church in Venice. A six metre high pyramid or a balcony upheld by gigantic black strongmen: I don’t see what their place is in a Christian church. Worse by far than what we have in Canterbury. But no more of that.

Take a look instead at this wall carving; it may be small but it says more than the marble monstrosities, however clever their workmanship.

This is Easter morning, first thing, before Mary reaches the tomb. The rising sun is gilding the tree and shining upon the One who has risen. An angel watches over him, as always. The angels had to watch the events of Thursday night and Friday without intervening. Were they already reassured that all would be well? We cannot know their experience of time.

Jesus is experiencing time, and space and all his senses, in a completely new way. The warmth of the sun on his chest makes him stop and think: This is my body!

His left hand explores his wounded side: no, I can feel it, but it doesn’t hurt. I can breathe freely, but I carry the marks, the stigmata, (as Saint Francis was to do). Time has left other marks, blotches, bruises, that probably were not all intended by the artist, but they point to this moment when Jesus took those first breaths, not in his new body, but in his body renewed, transformed; or in the process of transformation, in that twinkling of an eye, before he dressed and went out to meet Mary. Surely, with the blood flowing again – as we see it is – the bruises will disappear.

It was important to Jesus in this moment to explore his risen body, to know what he was waking up to. So, Thomas, come and put your hand in the mark of the nails, put your hand in my side, stop doubting and believe – just as I did last week!

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December 8: A poet’s reflection on Mary.

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Mary Mother from Hales Place Jesuit Chapel, Canterbury

We mark the Feast of Our Lady with this extract from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ. Read it slowly, then find the rest of the poem on line. 

The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe

Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that ’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

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10 May : From Fear to Love

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In love there is no room for fear, but perfect love drives out fear [1 John 4.18]

Fear is disabling. It makes us shrink from the risk of trust. It closes us off from relationship. Fear binds us in a narrow life. The work of God’s Spirit is to lead us from fear to love. But how can we co-operate with the Spirit and overcome those fears that hold us back from wideness of heart?

Name your fear

When I was a small child I was afraid of the dark. I couldn’t sleep. I imagined I could make out the shadowy outline of a gorilla in the darkest corner of the bedroom – not the best inducement to sleep! Then one night inspiration came: I named my gorilla ‘Charlie’. Somehow I wasn’t afraid of ‘Charlie’ in the same way as my looming, nameless gorilla- shaped terror. Sleep came more easily, and in time Charlie no longer seemed to be around. It helps to pin down just what it is you fear so that you can see it for what it is. For example, ‘if I try something new I will inevitably fail’. Naming your fear helps in beginning to address it: ‘I own I am afraid of this, but I don’t have to be held by this fear’.

Share your fear: Fear becomes magnified in size when we seek to hide it from others. Share your fear with someone you trust.

Look at where your actions take you

The inner voice of fear bids us be ‘safe’ but this safety is often illusory. Choosing the safe can lead us to be more trapped than ever. The pattern often repeats itself – so be aware of it. There are other responses we can make that will help us in the longer run to be happier, less constrained and more confident in our ability.

Don’t listen to discouragement:

In his advice to spiritual guides Ignatius Loyola notes how when we seek to overcome our fears and move to a greater trust in God, what is damaged and closed to the Spirit within us will ‘harass, afflict with anxieties’ and ‘put up false obstacles’. On the other hand the voice of the Spirit within is heard in ‘every interior joy that calls and attracts’ us towards wholeness, freedom and generous self-gift. Fear drives us, whilst the Love that is God invites.

One exercise that may be helpful is to divide a piece of paper into two columns. In the left column write down what the inner ‘voice’ of fear says. In the right column write down in answer what, in better moments, you have sensed God saying to you…’you are worthy, capable…there is a future for you…’

Act your way into a new way of thinking

If we wait until we feel total trust and freedom before we step out of a fearful pattern of behaviour we may wait a long time! But if we dare to step out when Love calls, ignoring the voice of fear, then trust and self-belief will grow.

Stay in the moment, for ‘now’ is where God is.

The rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today’

[The Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s: Through the Looking Glass]

Fear usually concerns what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future. All our capacity to be gratefully present to the gift of ‘now’ and to work creatively within it is stripped away. Yet ‘now’ is where God is. Even if the worst we can imagine did happen, God would be within that ‘now’. Jesus invites his worrying disciples to ‘consider the ravens…consider the lilies, how they grow’. It’s impossible to ‘consider’ what is before us if we’re somewhere in the past or future. Jesus advises: be present to what is. Spend a minute or two giving all your attention to the sounds you can hear – voices in the street, rain against the window – listen to the texture of these sounds rather than getting tangled up in what they might signify. Or, absorb yourself in what you can see – the lines on the desk in front of you, the movement of clouds in the sky. Slowly you will find your heartbeat slowing. In this breathing space, God ‘is’.

Go with the flow

The movement from fear into love is a movement of the Spirit. It is like a stream we launch our boat into and then the current takes it along. It takes effort and courage and persistence to go with this flow. But the flow is love, and this love is life.

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August 5: The Psalms as Personal Prayer VI.

Westminster_Psalter_David

I’d like to say a few words about singing the psalms.  In the fifth century text I quoted above from John Cassian, he refers to singing the psalms, indicating that this was already an accepted practice in the Church.  Again, from my personal perspective as an ex-ballet dancer, music is highly important to me, and I am so grateful that this long tradition of singing prayer exists.  The psalms were first used in Jewish worship, and they were composed to be sung there; the poets intended this when they wrote them.  The link-up between music and meaning is extremely close in the psalms, then; music wasn’t an afterthought.

We are fortunate in having a poet in our monastic community.  Most of her poems are composed to be simply read, but at least one of her poems was composed as a piece to be sung.  There is a recording of it, and it is very beautiful.  But, take away the musical accompaniment and read the poem alone, and the experience of its beauty diminishes somewhat.  That’s because the words and the music are bound up together to work their artistic magic.  In the same way, it’s arguable that the psalms come alive most fully when the words are integrated with music, because that is the way they were composed.

There are other reasons, too for singing the psalms.  St. Benedict says, “Let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.”  He’s talking about the power of music to keep us focused and recollected.  Singing integrates more of the body into the act of worship than is enlisted in reading silently.  In singing you involve the eyes, the ears and the voice most obviously.  Less obviously, you have the effect of musical rhythm.  Even if one is singing while standing or sitting still, this rhythm is felt by the whole body.  I’ve never forgotten what I was once told by the daughter of a deaf woman.  She said that her mother loved coming to the monastery church because she liked the music.  Although her mother couldn’t hear or sing, she felt the rhythmic vibrations of the simple chants we used for the liturgy, and found it prayerful.  Those able to hear fully might not be so conscious of feeling the vibrations of the music, but we do feel them nonetheless, and they help us to pray, also.

Music also elicits a response from the emotions – beauty and pathos can be expressed even in a simple, repetitive melody.  Song, further, is an aid to memory.  A snatch of a verse from a psalm may return to me later in the day because melody has a way of coming back and back.  This is how it works for me.  And I am so grateful that music and psalms have been partners in my vocation for nearly 40 years.

SJC

Here is the choir and congregation of St Peter’s, Colombia, South Carolina, singing the Gelineau version of Psalm 23.

 

SJC


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Advent Breath

monica12

According to the ninth century Neoplatonist philosopher John Scotus Eriugena (not to be confused with the Franciscan John Duns Scotus), when God fashions a creature he also creates himself. To be, so the thinking goes, is to be a particular entity. Since God is not a particular entity, God is beyond being (thus Terry Eagleton speaks of “the black lightning of God’s love which is more real than reality itself”). But God is the source of all being, and so when he forms a creature and breathes life into it, he invests it with something of himself. Therefore, in creating that creature he also brings himself into being. In the act of creation, God gives birth to himself.

MLT.

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Memento homo quia pulvis es

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Or look at the flowers of the field: in this case, the forget-me-not. On the left, the wild flower; on the right, the 14th Century Bishop’s Eye in Lincoln Cathedral. Dust of the earth, breathing out oxygen that human dust might receive it as the breath of God; solidified dust, blown and hammered into sheets of coloured glass, colouring the air red, gold and blue, rainbowing the motes that rise and descend like Jacob’s Angels. We stand on holy ground in the Cathedral and in the fields.

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