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10 February: Nathaniel finds his heart, Part II.

Following Jesus in a wet Krakow.

Yesterday we were looking at the first meeting between Jesus and Nathaniel as recorded by the Gospel of John in chapter one, verse forty-three and following.  The two men seemed to be enjoying some friendly banter, initially.  But, as Nathaniel discovers, Jesus’ remarks were more penetrating than he was expecting.  Jesus – from Nazareth, of all places!  

After the ice is broken – and it breaks astonishingly quickly – Jesus drops the playful tone completely.  He comes out with a remark that is so profoundly mysterious that it found entry right into Nathaniel’s deepest centre – his heart.  Jesus says to Nathaniel, “Before Philip came to call you, I saw you under the fig tree.”  

I turn this over in my mind and undertake some research.  I find, unsurprisingly, that this remark has been the subject of deep reflection ever since the early centuries of the Church.  What could Jesus have meant by it?   Some of the fourth and fifth century Fathers of the Church offer the explanation that the fig tree represents the Law. Jesus is saying that he saw Nathaniel under the shadow of the Law, and that he, Jesus, is calling him into his own light.  Maybe this is true.  It is a beautiful thought, but I find myself more drawn to the interpretation St John Chrysostom, writing in the late fourth century, gives to Jesus’ words.  Chrysostom says that Nathaniel asks his question as a mere human being, but that Jesus gives his answer as God.  Chrysostom continues, saying that Jesus, by his words, is telling Nathaniel that he understands him deeply and beholds him as God beholds him – from above, as it were.  When Jesus says, ‘I saw you,’ he means, according to Chrysostom, ‘I understood you through and through, understood the character of your life and person’.  

John Chrysostom’s insight explains Nathaniel’s complete change of heart – to my mind, anyway.  Nathaniel was sceptical about Jesus at first, then he jokes a bit with him, but now he’s caught off-guard by something in Jesus that has moved him.  I ponder Jesus’ words and realise that when one is deeply understood by another human being it is a life-changing experience.  What’s more, Nathaniel has suddenly seen Jesus’ own character and spiritual power, even as he himself has been seen by Jesus.  His defensiveness, hesitation and jocularity all drop away.  With a seriousness as profound as Jesus’ own gravity, Nathaniel now says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel.”  He is in a totally different place from the one he had been in just moments earlier.  This is Nathaniel’s turning point – and it takes place not only because of what Jesus has said, but because of Jesus himself, because of the spiritual power of his person and presence, and because Nathaniel has been deeply ‘seen’ by this extremely unusual man – from Nazareth. 

Perhaps you who are reading this reflection already know the joyful truth that Jesus is the centre of existence, the centre of reality itself.  He is the Beloved of everything that has being, the loving heart of every molecule, every world, every galaxy, every bug and blade of grass and mote of dust.  Maybe you already know that every person is formed for Jesus and that Jesus alone is rest for our restless hearts.  Nathaniel, despite his initial scepticism, comes to understand this wonderful thing, too – as we see it happen in these words from John’s gospel.  For someone like Nathaniel, Jesus does not need to work miracles or do any sensational things.  All Jesus needs to do is show up.  And all Nathaniel needed to do was to be himself with Jesus, to engage with him honestly.  It didn’t take Jesus long to reach Nathaniel at his deepest level.  A short encounter is all Jesus needs.  

“Catena aurea: commentary on the four Gospels, collected out of the works of the Fathers: Volume 6, St. John. Oxford: Parker, 1874. Thomas Aquinas”

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9 February: Nathaniel Finds His Heart, Part I.

from FMSL

A feast of Sister Johanna’s thoughts during these few days. Today and tomorrow she invites us to sit under the fig tree with Nathaniel. Will he become a disciple of Jesus? And let’s ask ourselves as well, will we follow him?

In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, starting with verse thirty-five, John gives us his account of the calling of the disciples.  I was pondering this well-known section of the gospel recently, thinking about what it must have been like to be one of those who were called.  Their life changed completely, from top to bottom, bottom to top, from the outside in and inside out – all in a matter of minutes.  The exact moment of each disciple’s encounter with Jesus, the moment when they realised that following him was the only thing that really mattered, must have been deeply inscribed within their memories.  In quiet times, they must have revisited the mysterious occasion, trying to understand its profound effect and meaning.  

I notice this time that in John’s gospel, the disciples are excited about Jesus in a way that is less evident in the other gospels.  Right from the beginning of their discipleship, they are already talking about Jesus’ identity as saviour.  Two of those called immediately tell others that Jesus is the Messiah.  Andrew, Peter’s brother, is the first to do so (see John 1:40f).  Then Philip makes the same declaration, and tells Nathaniel that they had found ‘him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote.’  And here I begin to slow down.  

Something about Nathaniel’s response to this news is absorbing my attention, and I want to explore this feeling.  Nathaniel is different.  Seemingly, he is not so ready to jump on this Jesus-bandwagon.  He is cautious.  He points out to Philip that Jesus comes from the lacklustre town of Nazareth.  Before we think how silly Nathaniel is being, let’s stop.  It can be quite a turn-off to discover that a person everybody is making such a fuss about comes from the kind of place where the only exciting thing that ever happens is… is nothing.  The people there are backward.  They have no style.  They all talk with their own uncultured accent.  They’re just losers, we might think.  In our day, such a town would probably not be a safe place to live – there’d be gangs, maybe drugs and weapons.  “From Nazareth?” Nathaniel asks.  “Can anything good come from there?”  I can think of quite a few places about which I’d be inclined to say that.  And that’s where Jesus comes from.  

Then John records the conversation that takes place between Nathaniel and Jesus.  It is an unusual one.  Interpreting it can be difficult.  I ask the Holy Spirit to inspire my imagination and then I let my thoughts play with this scene.  I first imagine Jesus speaking to Nathaniel in the rather jovial tones we often adopt in social situations when we meet a new person.  I hear Jesus now.  He’s saying in a friendly voice to Nathaniel – maybe even clapping him lightly on the back – “Nathaniel!  An Israelite in whom there is no deception!”  They’re smiling.  And they are also sizing each other up.  As I think about these words, I realise that there is a subtext here in Jesus’ introductory remark.  Jesus seems to be telling Nathaniel that he senses his hesitation about him.  But that’s not all.  Jesus’ words are not words of correction.  There is nothing threatening in them.  On the contrary, Jesus’ friendliness suggests that he likes the fact that this Israelite will think for himself and will not deceive him by pretending to be impressed just because everyone else happens to be. 

What does Nathaniel make of this?  I think he’s secretly pleased.  He’s been complimented by Jesus of Nazareth – but in an understated way.  We are usually quick to notice compliments, even understated ones.  Nathaniel is no different.  Probably taking up Jesus’ own joking tone, Nathaniel says to him, “How do you know me?”  When we receive an unexpected compliment, sometimes we try to deflect it with a little joke.  It isn’t that we don’t like praise.  We always do – but it can make us feel momentarily bashful, slightly confused.  We’re apt to cover this awkwardness with some bravado.  “Of course I’m the admirable human being you think I am!  How did you happen to find this out about me?” is what Nathaniel’s playful remark suggests to me.  

Those of you who have read my posts before know that I’m apt to take time to develop these lectio reflections so that we can enter more deeply into the sacred text by prayer.  I think we should stop here for today.  As Jesus and Nathaniel are getting to know each other perhaps we can turn to Jesus in prayer as if meeting him for the first time.  What have we heard about him?  What does he say to us?   Are we playful?  Or serious?  Tomorrow we will return to this reflection. 

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6 February: Zebedee, Part II

Mark Rogers’ statue of a fisherman in Mallaig harbour, Scotland

Continuing Sister Johanna’s reflection on Zebedee the fisherman of Galilee.

We are looking at a few words from Mark’s Gospel – 9:19-20. I recommend that you scroll to yesterday’s post to catch up, if you’ve just joined the blog. We’re looking mainly at Zebedee, the father of James and John, and I want to start with Jesus’ boldness. Jesus, in this passage, acts like the God he is. He simply summons James and John. He does not ask Zebedee’s permission to take his sons away from the family business, the family home or the paternal expectations. James and John were God’s before they were Zebedee’s. Jesus takes what belongs to him as the Son of God. It is a moment when Jesus acts with breathtaking divine authority.

Zebedee, presumably, was not a push-over; if he fit the description I offered yesterday, he would not have been hesitant to tell Jesus what he thought. Indeed, something in me wants to speak for Zebedee and say to Jesus, “Wait! Stop! What’s going on? ” But then I think, No: I don’t want to say that and I don’t want Zebedee to say that. I know Jesus. I know that he is the Son of God and as such his call takes precedence over all other obligations – even obligations to family, as Jesus himself makes clear at other times (cf. Luke 9:59-62).

Did Zebedee know Jesus in this way, too? Although, there is reason to believe that James and John were cousins of Jesus, and that Jesus was probably not a stranger to Zebedee or the rest of the family, the fact that Zebedee is completely silent when his two employee-sons are suddenly recruited by Jesus is reason for some amazement. No matter what they already knew of Jesus, they did not know what we know – their immediate and total response to Jesus’ command to follow him cannot be attributed to some miraculous foreknowledge that he was the messiah. This was not grasped rightly by any of Jesus’ followers during his lifetime. This makes the response of James and John, and in a different way of Zebedee, all the more astonishing. Perhaps this astonishment is a good place to pause again for twenty-four hours. I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for the final reflection.

SJC

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28 November, 1st Sunday of Advent: The Innocent.

chich.starceiling (785x800)

Bro Stefan Anacatrinei OFM Conv  preached this homily at FISC on the First Sunday of Advent, 2015, so its readings are repeated this year. Stefan was always worth listening to!

Welcoming the Innocent into Our Hearts

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, we begin a new liturgical year.  Yet, as we can see from today’s Gospel, the beginning of a new year is very much connected with the end.  This is the reason why today’s Gospel text is full of warnings about the end of times and about being prepared and making ourselves ready. Actually, the first two weeks of Advent continue the theme of the last coming before speaking about the first coming.

Anyway, during this season of Advent we are all called upon, and exhorted by the Church, to prepare ourselves to commemorate worthily the coming of our Brother and Saviour. We are called to welcome the baby of Bethlehem into our lives with a clean, sincere and grateful heart. This will help us to remain in close contact with the Lord, and our present lives will be sanctified. God indeed cares for our welfare and He wants us to enter deeply into His mystery. The Advent season actually is indeed nothing else than a good opportunity to make ourselves ready to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.

How is this possible? I mean how can we prepare ourselves properly? What can we do to enjoy Christmas with a happy and sincere heart?

Simple. We have to purify our senses. We have to bring them back to their original state when they were not yet contaminated by sin. Like Adam and Eve, who before their fall were able to feel and to enjoy the presence of God with all their whole being – they could see Him, talk and listen to Him – we also will be able to enjoy the presence of Jesus fully and properly, if we dare to purify our sight, our hearing, touch, taste, smell and sight. I’m afraid that if we do not do this,  we will only be able to see the beautiful Christmas lights and ornaments, but not be able to glimpse of the real Jesus; we will be delighted to listen to the amazing Christmas carols, but not to hear the sweetness of the voice of Jesus in our heart; we might touch the precious gifts which we will give or receive, but never, ever touch the priceless gift of God, I mean the love of God made visible and palpable for us in his beloved Son, Jesus Christ; which, of course, we can already experience particularly in the Eucharist. He will want us to clothe his tender naked body with a pure, warm and loving heart, not a cold and indifferent worldly one. God is love and he wants us to love him. Christmas is a special time when you can say to Jesus; “I really love you” and he will say to you in your heart: ‘I love you more than you will ever know, but thank you for your love, it is very precious to me. Please keep loving me, and I will keep loving you.’

Can you imagine that someone could be foolish enough to miss such an important event, by ignoring the meaning and the task of this precious time, called the Advent season?

It is possible, but I hope that it will not be a member of this congregation, or a person who has discovered Jesus and the Good News that he brings to the world, but has since ignored it.

I’m sure that our presence here, in this chapel, is evidence that we are concerned about our preparation during Advent, and that we really want to welcome the Innocent with open arms and our whole heart. It is impossible for Jesus to cause any harm to anyone or anything, because that’s his nature. Jesus, the Son of God, who for our sake become man in Bethlehem. He is the Innocent par excellence.

But, even if the Innocent cannot harm, his presence is not always a pleasant experience for everyone; for example, think of King Herod, who was very disturbed simply by hearing of His existence and  so wanted to kill Him. We have to acknowledge, that those who are under the influence of sin cannot stand His presence, and think that to make themselves comfortable, they can and will destroy Him, but the Innocent is indestructible. It is true, the Innocent sometimes hurts me too, by showing the difference between what I am and what I should become. I feel, I see my vocation in his presence, I become aware that I can be a saint, although I’m not and I do not try very hard to become one.

Dear brothers and sisters, if we really want to avoid hurting ourselves, I mean feeling uncomfortable in presence of the Innocent, let us take advantage of this beautiful season for restoring our hearts and our senses, by bringing them back to their original innocence in order to be able to welcome the Innocent. The place to start is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where we wash our souls in a new baptism, which will renew our thirst for God. We will then, during this beautiful and meaningful season of Advent, be able to wait for Jesus as his coming contains promise, love, preparation, prayer, new beginnings and fulfilment.

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20 July: Renewing the Liturgy, 5 and 6.

RENEWING THE LITURGY: Six Simple Steps 5 and 6

by Pat Travis

At the annual gathering of the priests of the Diocese in October 2018 the speaker was Tom O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at Nottingham University.  Tom gave the priests of the Diocese Six Simple Steps which could go some way to achieving Vatican II’s vision in our celebration of the Eucharist.  Today we take a look at steps 5 and 6.

Step 5:  Stand at the Table

“One of the obvious changes in the reformed liturgy was that ‘the priest no longer had his back to the people.’  Altars were ‘pulled out’ or a new one built behind which the president stood – and the change was understood in terms of visibility. But the change was really to draw out that the Eucharist takes place at a table, which can be interpreted as our altar.  This is the Lord’s table around which we are bidden by the Lord and which anticipates the heavenly table.

Step 6: The Prayer of the Faithful

“The oldest debate in Christian liturgy relates to the tension between fixed formulae and spontaneous prayer. …”  By the time of Vatican II (1962-65) many “had recognised the need for both familiar forms and for spontaneous expression, and so there is a place for this in the reformed rite: the Prayer [note the singular] of the Faithful.  However, often in practice it has become a scripted set of intentions.  …  The Prayer of the Faithful is an expression of the priesthood of the baptised and their ability, in Christ, to stand in the presence of the Father and ask for their own needs and those of all the communities to which they belong. 

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21 March: A modern parable for Lent.

We invite you to share this seafaring reflection from the Dean of Lichfield, a city about as far as you can get from the sea in England! He ends with these words:

Lent is a good time for self-examination on a personal and communal level.  How far have I or we mangled God’s image and likeness into my/our own limited image and likeness?  How far have my/our anxious needs for safety, belonging, esteem, or amounting to something deafened or blinded me/us to what God is putting before us?  And remember Christianity is a “revealed” faith, so it’s not so much a question of inventing the God we want, as understanding the God we have got and are getting.

Let’s journey on this Lent, personally and corporately, towards what God holds before us.  We can do no better than read and meditate on one of the Gospels – try Mark.  It’s short and punchy and lets us know why that, when the Good News is proclaimed, life isn’t settled or comfortable.

A prayer for us to say together:

We thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory, that you have called us to be your people.  Help us to know the greatness of our calling, so that we, having one spirit of faith and love, may live in the world as a new and holy generation.  May your eternal and righteous will be always before our eyes, so that in soberness and vigilance we may await your time, and witness to your promises, until your kingdom comes.  Amen.

With my love, prayers and blessings

Adrian Dorber
Dean of Lichfield

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18 January: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Day I.

DAY 1 You did not choose me, but I chose you (John 15:16)

Genesis 12:1-4 The call of Abraham
John 1:35-51 The call of the first disciples

Prayer
Jesus Christ,
you seek us, you wish to offer us your friendship
and lead us to a life that is ever more complete.
Grant us the confidence to answer your call
so that we may be transformed
and become witnesses of your tenderness for the world.


Questions
• Have you ever been aware that God was asking you or someone you know to begin a new journey in life – whether literally moving to somewhere else, or ‘changing direction’ in some other way?
How did you respond?
• What changes could your church or group of churches make to empower God’s people to walk more faithfully the path God has set for you, or to discern God’s guidance more clearly?
• What are some of the stories of the ‘new’ members of your community, whether they have crossed a county boundary or journeyed across continents to get there?

The booklet for Church Unity week can be found here.

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28 December: Citizen of the World

At his birth, Jesus had nowhere to lay his head, his camp was small indeed. Joyce Kilmer, writing early last Century, was optimistic that Jesus was known throughout the world and welcome in every land. We see a different picture today.

There is also the Real Presence in the Sacrament – again, not so readily available to us as it was to Kilmer. But if not through the lips, the King of Glory may enter my Spirit though my ears and eyes. O Come, O come, Emmanuel!

FISC Chapel by CD.
 No longer of Him be it said
"He hath no place to lay His head."
 In every land a constant lamp
Flames by His small and mighty camp.

 There is no strange and distant place
That is not gladdened by His face.
 And every nation kneels to hail
The Splendour shining through Its veil.

 Cloistered beside the shouting street,
Silent, He calls me to His feet.
 Imprisoned for His love of me
He makes my spirit greatly free.
 And through my lips that uttered sin
The King of Glory enters in."

 Joyce Kilmer

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16 December: Generous II

From Saiint Davids Cathedral

Part II of Sister Johanna’s reflection on our generous creator and father in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Thank you once again, Sister!

Yesterday we were looking at the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Mt.20:1-16), and we meditated on how God the Father, represented by the vineyard owner, searches for us ceaselessly. Today I would like to look at what happens when the time comes for the workers to be paid. .

Looking at this parable of Jesus strictly from the point of view of how to run a business, it is not a very cogent treatment of the subject, as yesterday’s post pointed out. Economics do not figure, for Jesus. Or rather, Jesus seems to be making the point that the ‘economics’ of the Kingdom are completely different from all others. Likewise, the justice of the Kingdom is emphatically not what we would expect. It was this latter point that always tripped me up when I was younger. The older I get, the less this trips me up, but let’s explore it anyway.

It used to be that when I read this parable, I would feel sorry for the workers hired in the morning, who worked hard all day long (as they are at pains to point out) ‘in all the heat’. Bad luck for them, I’d think, when the late-comers slouch in to receive their salary, and it comes out that the late ones are being paid as much as those hired early in the day. Because if the early group had known that this would happen, they could have slept late, and then strolled out to the marketplace for a few beers, and then pulled a pathetic face when the vineyard owner walked by, begged for a job, worked an hour and made a small bundle.

But I don’t think like that any longer. Age, life-experience, and self-knowledge have changed my perspective. My first thought now on reading the vineyard owner’s question, ‘Why are you envious because I am generous?’ is “Lord, I am not envious because you are generous. Relief is all I feel.” Many kinds of relief. Let’s start with the question of “when.” I learn here that the Lord ‘hires’ into the life of grace according to a timing that is entirely his own affair. This consoles me when I pray for people who do not seem to be in the Lord’s employ. I sometimes ponder the mystery of why some souls do not seem to know the Lord, or even want to know him, cannot seem to see that those who work in his vineyard are blessed beyond telling – the whole thing seems alien to them, even empty, delusional, ridiculous. But, in this parable I find that the question of when is simply not my problem, with regard to other souls. It is entirely the Lord’s prerogative to hire according to timing that only he understands, but is unquestionably right for those whom he hires. The thing to remember, the thing that gives me comfort here, is that he goes out and looks for us, as we saw in yesterday’s post. Repeatedly. Until the eleventh hour.

Then there is the matter of what this vineyard really stands for in the parable*. I like to think of the vineyard as heaven. In this interpretation, our Lord wants us to know that heaven is not a place where its inmates sit around and spend all their time singing alleluias: they work. St Therese used to say, ‘I’ll spend my heaven doing good on earth’. I think she would support this view of the vineyard. So, how wonderful that those who are ‘hired’ late in life, who late in life find the Lord and, late, learn to love him, may hope to be admitted as workers in the heavenly vineyard, along with those who received their working papers as young children. What a relief! I cannot be envious of the vineyard owner’s generosity here.

If the vineyard also stands for the life of grace on earth, which it probably does, well and good. To ‘work’ there is our joy, our greatest joy on earth. This is what makes the complaints of the workers in this parable so wrong-headed. For them, life in the vineyard is one big grind, evidently, its work something they want to do as little of as possible so that they can spend the rest of their time… doing what, exactly? Loafing about? (How boring). Living an exciting life of sin? (How addictive and miserable). Making money, becoming famous, and playing power games with people in order to get ahead? (Ditto). Doing what they want when they want? (Ok for a short time, but ultimately, no). What they don’t seem to get is that the life of grace is itself the ‘payment’. One of our deepest human and spiritual needs, after the need for love, is the need for meaning. A life in the Lord’s vineyard fulfils both needs, gives us both love and meaning. This is our payment – and this is why everyone who works for this vineyard owner receives the same payment.

Finally, there is a third reason why this parable no longer bothers me anymore. You might say that I am in the category of those who were hired early in the day. But how many of us from that category can claim, by the time we reach, let’s call it, a “mature” age, to have been faithful at every moment? Have we all worked straight through the day in all the heat? Really? Or did we occasionally lapse, flake out, slack off, waste time at the water cooler? Perhaps we are still there, in flake-out mode. Are we afraid to return to the vineyard, afraid of what the owner will say to us? This parable allows us to hope that the Lord may be generous with his mercy to us, also.

SJC.

Note:

*Scholarly treatments of this parable usually say that the vineyard stands for the covenant; those first called stand for the Jewish people, privileged since Abraham’s time. The Lord opens up the membership, invites the world in, offers them everything. The first called have no right to be jealous of this.

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July 31: Traherne I: We love we know not what

river.monnow.

The preacher deplored how some people claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious’; when looking at religion with something of an outsider’s eye  – as an often alienated Catholic – I have more sympathy than Father was expressing! We have to leave room for the Spirit to blow where s/he will and try not to get in the way.

Edward Thomas pointed me towards Thomas Traherne not long ago. This Meditation of his goes some way to defending the ‘spiritual but not religious’ soul. We surely cannot maintain that atheists and agnostics do not love.

Though it be a maxim in the schools that there is no Love of a thing unknown, yet I have found that things unknown have a secret influence on the soul, and like the centre of the earth unseen violently attract it.

We love we know not what, and therefore everything allures us.

As iron at a distance is drawn by the loadstone, there being some invisible communications between them, so is there in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be. There are invisible ways of conveyance by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing?

Surely the spiritual but not religious person feels so drawn? And if we church-goers are honest, at both institutional and personal levels, we have sometimes, often even, got in the way of the Spirit. Thomas Traherne’s theology of Joy seems a good way to enter the holiday month of August. Laudato Si!

WT

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