As we approach the Feast of Saint Francis on 4 October, we have been looking at aspects of Creation and our part in it as co-workers with God, the mistakes the human family have made, and that you and I continue to make. We read C.S. Lewis telling us that we have to go beyond warm-feeling nature religion and engage in serious theology if we want to have the right idea about God. So let’s get serious and read what Pope Francis says about the crisis in our corner of creation, the corner we have responsibility for. Here is the opening.
1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Romans 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Genesis 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
Note that the Pope uses the language of the Bible, which also inspired the poet Walter Savage Landor’s verse ‘content to sink into her lap when life is spent.’ The realisation of our earthliness is a first step to caring for our sister as God intended from the beginning of humanity.
Continuing Sister Johanna’s reflections on the Psalms; click here.
I’d like to say a few words about singing the psalms. 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.
About the time the Quakers were migrating to North America, many other people were doing the same, in the case of Hebridean Islanders, it was poverty in the aftermath of the 1745 civil war that drove them away. Dr Johnson and James Boswell visited the Isle of Skye in 1773, soon after the process started; they were made welcome, but part of the entertainment was a sobering reminder of this. Here is Boswell (with his sometimes antique spellings):
In the evening the company danced as usual. We performed, with much activity, a dance which, I suppose, the emigration from Sky has occasioned. They call it America. Each of the couples, after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to shew how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat.
Mrs. M’Kinnon told me, that last year when a ship sailed from Portree for America, the people on shore were almost distracted when they saw their relations go off, they lay down on the ground, tumbled, and tore the grass with their teeth. This year there was not a tear shed. The people on shore seemed to think that they would soon follow. This indifference is a mortal sign for the country.
From “Life of Johnson, Volume 5, by James Boswell, via Kindle.
And a mortal sign for any country today whose more enterprising citizens feel the need to leave all they have known for a perilous journey to a land where they may not be as welcome as they might hope. War still drives people from their homes.
Let’s pray for peace in our time and for the casualties of war.
An all-female cultural dance troupe, comprising female students from Annunciation Secondary School, Nkwo, Nike, in Enugu State, Nigeria, dances to traditional Igbo music during the interhouse sporting competition held Feb. 26, 2019. (Wikimedia Commons/Arch-Angel Raphael the Artist, CC-BY-SA 4.0)
Sister Mary Morajeyo Okewola writes about dance from Nigeria for the National Catholic Reporter. An interesting reflection with a sting in the last paragraph for well-meaning missionaries.
As an African, dance is as much a part of my life as eating, drinking and working, but it is also an important part of our worship, following the guidance of the Bible where it is frequently referenced, particularly in the Old Testament. There dance is a form of worship — as a recognition of love and praise of God. It, along with other spiritual exercises, were believed to be accepted by God as satisfactory veneration.
A few years ago the Missionaries of Africa came to help celebrate the centenary of our parish school. Every parishioner I spoke to at the time was struck by the reverence shown by the African Missionary students as they danced the book of the Gospels to the lectern to the sound of drums. Other Masses that I have attended with African music and dance were also accessibly prayerful. So I was disappointed to read some of what Sister Freda Ehimuan describes in this article; a mismatch between Christian faith and practice in Africa. She reports that:
For the African, worship is the expression of feelings (negative and positive) toward the Divine, in different ways and through various media. Since worship is the expression of feelings, songs, dance, drums and incantations are significant to African worship. Physical expression is important in African worship; even if the person remains motionless, they may be crying, or making sounds from their throat. Without these expressions, Africans think that their worship is not deep enough and that it lacks the ability to reach God. They go through the rubrics of worship without experiencing an internal impact.
She describes one mismatch below:
A bishop has been speaking against dancing in the church for many years. One day he got a donation from some organization to build a pastoral center. He was so full of joy that right there on the altar he began to sing and dance. All the parishioners were so surprised that they spontaneously danced with him. Of course, he stopped when he realized what he was doing! When some Africans — who feel that they are civilized and too dignified to dance in worship — are shaken by incidents or experiences, their true nature comes out. Physical expression is their natural way of expressing faith whether they deny it or not.
I urge you to reflect on the article in the light of the recent posts about reforming the liturgy. Not just to ‘tut, tut’ at the missionaries whose predecessors had insufficient understanding of African cultures: they laid the foundations people like Sister Freda can build on today. But also to wonder what a truly local expression of faith would look like in your home town. What would you like to see happening in our celebrations? Read all of Sister Freda’s article here. (from Global Sisters Report, National Catholic Reporter, 12 July 2021.)
Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.
Another blog by Eddie Gilmore of the Irish Chaplaincy in London. Thank you Eddie, as always.
“You don’t realise how much you’ve missed something until you have it again.”
I’d only gone down to the newly re-opened library to return the couple of books that I’d had out since last year and to borrow a new one. As I came out of the main entrance onto Canterbury High Street I was greeted by an unusual sight. There were seven elderly-looking ladies about to start some kind of performance. They were dressed identically in grey headscarves and billowing black shawls and each had a zimmer frame. To the accompaniment of a slightly eerie soundtrack, they began to push their zimmer frames around one another and were looking more and more distressed and agitated. Their expressions then softened, as did their movements, and suddenly they all pushed away their zimmers and began to dance. Next, they undid their headscarves and flung them into a captivated crowd and ripped off the black shawls to reveal colourful dresses. A solitary man appeared with a large drum, onto which he was beating a flamenco rhythm. The spectacle ended with the setting off of party-poppers and the women throwing rice over the bystanders, before disappearing, dancing, round the corner. I was utterly enchanted and deeply touched. It was the first live dance performance I’d seen in over a year, the first live anything, and it was so good to experience it again.
As I went round to the other side of the library to get my bike I came across the women in their flamenco dresses, looking very pleased with themselves. “That was wonderful,” I gushed. “Thank you so much.” And I added, almost in tears, “You don’t realise how much you’ve missed something until you have it again.” One of them asked if I’d like more rice strewn over me. “Oh yes!” I replied, and was duly anointed. I felt truly blessed.
The day after that I was having a well-earned coffee with a couple of the guys I’d done my Saturday morning club cycle ride with (and what a treat it is to be riding in a group again). We were basking in the sun by the Argentinian café in the Dane John Gardens in Canterbury, and it was great to see people out and about again. I’d been chatting with Conor en route about coming out of lockdown and I’d told him about how much I’d enjoyed seeing a live dance performance again. Just then I spotted a couple in the nearby bandstand doing a tango. “Look!” I exclaimed to Conor and Chris, “there’s a couple dancing.” Chris then told us of how he had practised for months the first dance, to an 80s song, he did with his wife at his wedding, and the conversation went onto other songs from the 80s. Then I told Dublin-born Conor about a nice scene from the film ‘Sing Street’ in which the protagonist, a boy who forms his own band, gathers a load of fellow-pupils at his Dublin school to be dancers at the first gig and implores them to “dance like it’s the 80s!”
One of my favourite scenes from ‘Mamma Mia’ is where all the women, young and old, dance down to the harbour to the tune of ‘Dancing Queen’ and then leap into the sea. An especially touching bit of that scene is an older woman casting off the large pile of sticks she’s been carrying on her shoulders, joining the joyful procession, and crying out, “Oh YEAH.” A few months ago my ninety-one year old mum was sent a wind-up dancing leprechaun by one of her sisters in Newry. The care home where she lives sent a gorgeous video of her standing up and doing a little jig alongside the leprechaun. This from someone who needs a zimmer frame these days to get around.
The day after the Argentinian coffee and tango in the park was Trinity Sunday and Yim Soon and I were at our customary zoom Mass. Part of a reflection from one of the women present was the playing of a Nina Simone song ‘I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.’ During the song several of us present began to sway and dance, and David the priest was moving from side to side the icon of the Trinity, so that it looked as if the Trinity themselves were dancing. It was a special moment.
I’ve always been taken by the Hindu belief that the Lord Shiva danced the world into existence. On this theme, the most well-known song of Sydney Carter is ‘The Lord of the Dance’, whose lyrics go ‘Dance, dance, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the dance, said he.’ As a child I was convinced that this lyric was, ‘I am the Lord of the dance settee.’ When we were young my sister and I used to jump up and down on the settee in the living-room, and it seemed to me very fitting that God would be jumping up and down with us! The image of the dance settee has, happily, never really left me.
Yim Soon and I are delighted to have just been invited to a wedding, the first such invitation in ages. It’s friends who are musicians and as well as the prospect of good music one of my first thoughts was that we’ll hopefully be able to have a good dance as part of the celebration. I’ve written before of my August holiday in Barmouth, which is an annual reunion of old friends (who met in the 80s!), plus their now mainly adult children, which began in 2000. One of the traditions of the week is a concert night and one of the traditions of the concert night is the singing of ‘500 Miles’. At what was to be the final performance before Covid, the song turned into a long conga of people snaking around the concert room and that led in turn to everyone dancing, old and young together, to other 70s and 80s classics. It was one of the highlights for me of Barmouth 2019.
To finish, here again are the immortal words of Sydney Carter, at least how I remember them:
‘And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be; for I am the Lord of the dance settee’!
Today’s post is an extract from a longer article from the Hermit of Saint Bruno. Worth reading in full, I’m sure much in there will resonate with you, especially if we cannot sing together this Christmastide!
Carthusian monks spend a lot of time singing in choir and cell. They gather to sing the Mass in the morning, then to sing the Office of Vespers at the end of the day, and at night for the long Office of Readings and Lauds. It is the common activity that takes the most time in the life of the monks.
Not only is Gregorian chant inseparable from the liturgy – it is not an ornament – but it is considered an essential spiritual instrument. The Statutes specify it thus:
“Let us observe this manner of chanting, singing in the sight of the most Holy Trinity and the holy angels, penetrated with fear of God and aflame with a deep desire. May the songs we sing raise our minds to the contemplation of eternal realities, and our voices blend into one cry of jubilation before God our Creator.” (Statutes book VI, §52:25)
The Statutes state precisely that singing can elevate the spirit to contemplation of God, that is, to the highest one can expect here below.
To round off this reflection, may I send you back three years to this video from the Poor Clares of Lilongwe, singing and dancing their prayers.
I wonder about this feast. This site is more than respectful of relics but angels carrying a house from Palestine to Italy? That does not move me to prayer.
Even, dare I say it, the chapel of the Portiuncula, where Saint Francis died, seemed lost in the basilica erected over and around it, and did not call me to my knees. Maybe I’d never make a Franciscan, and this site is more than respectful of Franciscans. And of Saint Francis.
It’s not just saints’ places that we value, and not just Christians that troop around palaces, or Gilbert White’s rectory, or the home of a teenaged Beatle to be, or even Dylan Thomas’s writing place overlooking the Estuary in Laugharne, as shown below. We may not touch the exhibits or sit on the chair but we breathe in the air, sort of.
I doubt the authenticity of the site at the top of this blog, the reputed house of the Visitation, where Elizabeth welcomed Mary, who had come to be a home-help for her pregnant cousin. But the shrine is a reminder that this story is about two flesh and blood women and their flesh and blood sons. The statues show them about to burst into song and dance, which they surely did: Luke 1: 39-56 is almost all poetry and song.
So today, let’s celebrate two real women who lived in real houses and raised real families. And may we heed Elizabeth’s son’s call to prepare the way for Mary’s son, however strange a Christmas we might be expecting.
All the thoughts of visions and dreams and crazy, uninhibited rushing about, and along came a poem. Run John, run!
It might have been dancing, like Zorba, or David before the Ark
But with you it was running: mad, measureless marathons of joy;
Crazed careering for Christ’s sake, labyrinthine, loving loping.
Your feet refreshed by the dry old novice-master’s words.
And the darkened day when the glad joy vanished from your veins,
What did you do but run and shout and cry; and run and cry: ‘My
God, why? Why have you forsaken me, oh why God, why?’
For why? To learn true wisdom, to learn how, not knowing God’s grace,
(Though it be quietly working in their thought, deed and word)
So many carry on, living as best they can, loving their fellows,
Stepping aside on the narrow path to let the stranger pass.
No stranger he, the silent one, who smiled as he walked by
Without a word. But not ignoring you, no fear; he wanted you
To follow to the log-bench, warm beneath the crabtree
At the corner: you can see it now, his piercéd feet cradled
In your hands. What then he taught you no dry novice-master
Ever could impart, but kings, bishops, country folk and friars
All received it from your heart. So run John, run! Run John, run!
Another post by Eddie Gilmoreof the London Irish Chaplaincy, one of the L’Arche Kent diaspora; just a day too late for Valentine’s!
I was struck by two recent comments about the power of music, one from a 99-year-old Kerry woman; the other by a young man from Belfast.
I’d written in my last blog, also about music, how I was looking forward to a couple of carol singing events in care homes just before Christmas. One of them, at St Teresa’s in Wimbledon, particularly stood out. Paul, Rory and I were joined by one of our lovely volunteers, Christine, who’s originally from Dublin and who faithfully comes every Friday to chat to the mainly Irish residents. I’d planned a repertoire of Christmas songs, both old and new, but as we were waiting for everyone to arrive I decided to warm up with some Irish songs. It was immediately clear that this was a group who didn’t need any warming up. Everyone was both moved by the music and moving. Feet were tapping and arms were waving as people sang along to the familiar tunes. Sheila from Kerry had requested ‘The Galway Shawl’ in honour of a recently arrived Galwayman and I happily began with that, in honour too of my own Dad. And then for Sheila I did a couple of songs from Kerry: ‘The Black Velvet Band’ and ‘Golden Jubilee’. For the Dubliners present we sang ‘Molly Malone’; and for the several people from Cork (I remarked to the wonderful Sr. Pat, the Director, that the name of the home should be renamed St Finbars!) there was ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ (not literally, I’m afraid!). The house was absolutely ROCKING (and anyway, who needs whiskey to have a good time!). I slowed it down with ‘Sweet 16’, before launching into the Christmas set. It was quite simply the most joyful and uplifting experience imaginable.
One of the Cork ladies confided to me later that she was normally quite shy but had so much enjoyed the singing and dancing. And as for Sheila, she said (and I remembered it word for word, it was so heart-warming):
“We were expecting carol singers and then you fellas turned up! The singing was heavenly. You had us lifted out of our chairs and flying through the air like angels. You’ve made our Christmas perfect.”
We’re looking forward now to our second St Brigid’s concert, at St James’ Church Piccadilly on January 31st. There will be a host of talented performers, ranging in age from the young people of the London Celtic Youth Orchestra to the more mature members of the Irish Pensioners Choir. One of those on the bill, Belfast-born actor Anton Thompson McCormick just wrote to me to say:
“31st will be a delight, people coming together and celebrating the good things – how else to start the decade?”
In the midst of writing this piece I was sent the copy of a letter addressed to me that had been sent to the ICPO (Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas) office in Maynooth from a man in a prison in the North of England. He wrote:
“After reading your article in the ICPO Christmas newsletter 2019 I was impressed that the guitar you had used for the last 24 years had been put to more good use by taking it into Wormwood Scrubs”, and he goes on to ask if I could come and perform to him and the other 25 Irish prisoners there, explaining that “my friends and I are very keen on the idea and it would give us a more positive vibe to take forward”. He ends with the words “Thank you for sharing your story and in fact your guitar”. I was incredibly touched by that and it shows again that we just never know the impact we might have on somebody’s life.
So as we start another new year and if music be indeed the food of love then let us PLAY ON!!!
Here is the permanent invalid Elizabeth writing to Robert about one of the doctors who helped to keep her that way. For all the light-hearted tone, this is an intimate confession of her situation.
“I had a doctor once who thought he had done everything because he had carried the inkstand out of the room—’Now,’ he said, ‘you will have such a pulse to-morrow.’ He gravely thought poetry a sort of disease—a sort of fungus of the brain—and held as a serious opinion, that nobody could be properly well who exercised it as an art—which was true (he maintained) even of men—he had studied the physiology of poets, ‘quotha’—but that for women, it was a mortal malady and incompatible with any common show of health under any circumstances.
And then came the damnatory clause in his experience … that he had never known ‘a system’ approaching mine in ‘excitability’ … except Miss Garrow’s … a young lady who wrote verses for Lady Blessington’s annuals … and who was the only other female rhymer he had had the misfortune of attending. And she was to die in two years, though she was dancing quadrilles then (and has lived to do the same by the polka), and I, of course, much sooner, if I did not ponder these things, and amend my ways, and take to reading ‘a course of history’!!”
(from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by Robert Browning)