Tag Archives: death

12 December: Beautiful killers and the greatest love.

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September had turned warm again, it was a good day to enjoy a sandwich in sight of the sea near Rye Harbour, and watch the world go by.

There were fewer humans than the last time I was this way, which was in August, but there were plenty of birds, as always. What first caught my eye was a small group of sand martins, swooping and swirling, stirring themselves up for the long flight to Southern Africa. Not quite ready to go yet! Was it a family group, the parents imparting their final advice before taking off in earnest?

A cormorant passed by, purposefully facing the light westerly breeze. A different spectacle altogether: its flying looked like hard work, though we know the grace they acquire as soon as they are in their watery element.

It must have been the frequent sightings of fighter planes this Battle of Britain month that set me comparing the martins to Spitfires, all speed and aerobatics and the cormorant to a ponderous Wellington bomber: killing machines both. So are the martins and cormorant killers, but not of their own kind and no more than necessary to feed  themselves and their children.

We humans know better than that of course.

_______________________________________________

Redemption? Half a mile away is an abandoned wooden hut, the former lifeboat station. It was from here that seventeen men sailed and rowed to their deaths early last century, setting out in a storm to rescue the crew of a stricken ship. They did not know that the men were safely on shore before they set out. Their monument says they were doing their duty.

It was rather the greatest love.

(Another day at the same place.)

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24 November: The Road to Emmaus VII – and beyond.

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Then they said to each other, did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us? (Luke 24:32).

Jesus has vanished, but at last the disciples see. They recognize Jesus. And they are able, consciously now, to lay claim to the strange and wonderful joy they felt as Jesus walked with them on the road and explained the scriptures to them.

But now they realise that what Jesus had told them on the road was a preparation for something else. His words, spoken during their journey, were themselves like the journey and not like the full arrival. The disciples did not really “arrive” until they reached Emmaus.

Then why did Jesus at first pretend that he wanted to go further than Emmaus? Perhaps he did this for the disciples’ sake, because he wanted to draw something further out of them. This seeming pretence on Jesus’ part gives the two disciples the opportunity to realise how much they want this stranger to stay with them; even though they do not realise fully who he is, they know that he is important to them, and so they then make a conscious choice and ask him pressingly to remain with them.

But, when would full recognition of the Risen Jesus come? And why hadn’t it come to them yet? Caravaggio’s painting helps us here, helps us to see that the recognition of the Risen Lord comes most fully within the context of the meal. In the Last Supper Jesus commanded the Twelve ‘do this in memory of me.’ He would now, in this “first supper” of his risen life, show them that he meant it. He would show them that this memorial of him was not an empty memory, a mere trick of the imagination, but a real encounter with him. Earlier in the day, Jesus had shown them that Scripture was about him. Now Jesus would show them that the meal is not ‘about’ something, it is something – or rather, Someone: it is Him.

The disciples’ recognition of Jesus and Jesus’ physical disappearance are nearly simultaneous. This is, in a way, a difficult truth. It is always a bit painful to me to think that the two disciples were so close to being able to throw their arms around Jesus once more, if only they had been quick enough! But, always the teacher, Jesus has something else, something more important to show them. When he disappears from their sight at the meal, this disappearance of Jesus is not like the disappearance of Jesus in death. This disappearance does not cause grief, it heals grief. The disciples begin to grasp now that Jesus’ reality remains in the meal. The disciples know him in the breaking of the bread. And, most importantly, they now realise that he has overcome death, and as such has assumed a new form. This form is the form in which we, too, must recognise and follow him.

The adventure of Emmaus happens only three days after Jesus’ death, remember. The disciples will need more time to express in words what they suddenly grasped here at Emmaus on an essential level. We need time, too. But there is so much to learn from this. Here I am, a latter day disciple, with all the advantages of understanding that result from access to two thousand years of Christian teaching. Yet, I can feel as raw and untutored as these two disciples were. And maybe that is the way things should be. It enables me to use their experience as a model and to take comfort and encouragement from their story.

SJC

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23 November, The Road to Emmaus VI; seeing.

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The two disciples cannot bear to part with this seemingly unknown man, who understands everything.

When they drew near to the village to which they were going, he made as if to go on; but they pressed him to stay with them saying, ’It is nearly evening, and the day is almost over.’ So he went on to stay with them. Now while he was with them at table he took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight (Luke. 24:28-31).

The great artist, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, in 1601, captured this moment in a magnificent painting, and I have reflected on this in the form of a poem. [This painting is on permanent display in the National Gallery of London.]

Seeing Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus

We know the two disciples by their spillage:

flung arms, shocked shoulders, splayed hands.

He found them trudging toward the village –

loveable curmudgeons all wrong.

But who’s the right-hand man – studious, still,

drawn not by Luke but by artist’s skill,

drawn, by intense act of will, like me,

by desire to be with them there, to see.

For see:

not one has closed his eyes for prayer:

for Jesus is being quietly seismic.

And see, his outstreaming inwardness opens their eyes

shaken, graced, surprised beyond all telling,

they see: they marvel: they see.

Ah, yes. He tenderly gives it away. Amen, amen. This is

Him being Him so Him so real that he’s unmissable so alive

with blessing that death cannot take hold anywhere so real

that if they seize him he burns even as their hearts flame

even as they know him so real that even the shadows

cannot shadow even the shadows consecrate.

Now they may hold him only as food is held

for only the food will remain

for this is the moment

before He vanishes

like a

m

o

m

e

n

t

,

SJC

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18 November: The Road to Emmaus – Seeing Salvation, I.

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Greetings again to Sister Johanna, who has been reading Saint Luke and letting the Word speak to her. Thank you, Johanna, for sharing with us! 

The complete story of the Road to Emmaus is told only in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 24:13-32). It is a well known account of two disciples making a journey on foot from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. One of the disciples has a name. Cleopas. The other is forever unnamed. A man whom they do not recognise finds them and walks with them. Because of this man, they have an experience that changes everything, that re-orients them vocationally, humanly – on every level. I love this story. Yet, whenever I read it, I feel a strange ache inside. I feel that I am there, with Cleopas – I am the other one, the unnamed one; I am walking down that dreary, hot and dusty road.

As a Catholic, I am accustomed to hearing this story proclaimed in the liturgy during the Easter Octave; then, later in the Easter season, it comes again, this time on a Sunday. It is an important story. It is one of the stories about Jesus appearing after his death. It tells us that the Lord is Lord, and that he is risen from death. But this story has many levels, and teaches things in addition to the glorious fact of Jesus’ resurrection. It has a lot to say about what discipleship can feel like not only at Easter time, but all the time. It deserves to be revisited outside the liturgical season of Easter in order to appreciate just how many aspects of the ordinary Christian life it addresses. It is a lengthy story, but I would like to look at it a bit at a time in a series of posts.

It begins like this:

Now that very same day, the two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking together about all that had happened (Luke 24:13).

Now that very same day….’ The same day as what? It’s the day that is three days after Jesus’ death on Friday – three days after a shattering Friday that no one had yet learned to call “good”. This third day is the one we now know as Easter Sunday, but in this gospel passage no one had learned to use that designation either. For Jesus’ disciples, that ‘same day’ is just the next day in a series of tragic days. Jesus, their master, their beloved rabbi, their dearest friend, had been crucified like a criminal on the Friday before. And now, he was dead. His ignominious death seemed to augur only one thing: that no one would ever take any of his teachings seriously or believe any of his claims. His kingdom would simply never be established. The disciples were confronted now with death’s finality, its apparently locked and barricaded door. There is no bargaining with death. The dead are irretrievable. The grieving have no choice but to accept the loss of the deceased person, as well as the unique world that person represents. That is what the disciples were struggling with on that day.

How often has discipleship been like that to me? How often has Jesus seemed to be, well, “dead” and lost to me? Yet, I can also say that this state, although I know it well and truly, has never been a permanent one for me. Jesus is full of surprises – as the disciples will soon re-discover.

That same day, surprising things began to happen that the disciples did not know what to make of. Tomorrow we will begin look at them.

SJC.

Franciscan friends on the road to Canterbury.

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16 November: Spring and Fall.

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We can never have too much poetry, nor too much Hopkins. Here he is writing to a young child, but also to himself, and to those who have ears to hear. Earlier this year young Abel, then aged 2½, was inconsolably grieving for the snow. Echoes of Bottom’s speech in Twelfth Night?

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

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15 November: Remembering a century on

 

Remembrance Sunday, 2018, 100 years since the Armistice brought an end to the fighting in the Great War. There was no question as to how I should mark the day, since my niece Jo was down in Folkestone to help create on the sand a portrait of Wilfred Owen, the soldier poet killed a few days before the war ended.

The big portrait was completed by the team in the early morning despite the rain that washed away part of the work; it was replaced in time for the public viewings.

Further along the beach people were invited to sketch silhouettes of dead soldiers in rows upon the sand. Hundreds did so; I imagine with some degree of solemnity. These images, and the portrait of Owen, were washed away by the tide.

But it’s never quite ‘Goodbye to all that’, is it?

As my mother, our poet SPB put it, ‘Bravo Danny Boyle for such a powerful forward looking impact involving so many who would not have taken part in services and parades.’ The crowds were great, but as I heard someone say to an acquaintance: ‘Everyone is taking it in turns up there (on the balcony where the best views were). And so it was. All seemed muted but glad to be there, part of the crowd, part of the people.

MMB

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November 12. Truth telling XIII: the first casualty in war.

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It seems to have been the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus who first said that truth is the first casualty in war.

This poster sums that up. It was intended to attract young Irishmen to join the colours during the Great War of 1914-18. I return to the question we asked on November 6 two years ago: What sacrifices have been offered in modern industrial war and to what deities?

Truth, in this case, was sacrificed to the idols of Nationalism and Xenophobia. And  all too many young men were sacrificed.

Let nation speak peace unto nation.

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November 10: Remembering

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I came across this little Staffordshire souvenir figure under a church war memorial last November. A hundred years on, it’s difficult to understand who would design such an ornament, or who would have bought it. As boys I remember us getting more run-of-the-mill designs for my mother’s collection, but we once gave her a Great War tank model, not thinking of the loss of life and all the human suffering it represented.

But what does this figure represent, other than a present from Bishop’s Stortford? Is the soldier a killer or a victim? Brave or resigned, or hoping for a ‘Blighty’ wound to get himself sent home for a month or two? Did it remind its first owner of a loved one lost? And how did it feel to see it if you were a returned front-line soldier, after the War? Pure white was not very often seen amid Flanders mud.

Caught in that moment when he goes Over The Top to kill or be killed: how do we bring this to God? This is not man-for-man fighting – the machine gun that may get him will be many yards away, and unless it comes to bayonets he won’t see the one he kills.

Perhaps it is fitting to put him down, as the parishioners did, in front of the Cross on the War Memorial; without a word, with the poppies around him.

What can we say? With our current weaponry we have no right to feel morally superior. Piloting deadly drones from hundreds of miles away or threatening to press the red button; or indeed having others do so in our name: lives on ‘our side’ are not at risk as those going over the top were.

Father forgive us for we do not want to know what we do.

 

 

 

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9th November: In my Flesh I shall see God.

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This cemetery in London has not been used for fifty years, when it was closed by Act of Parliament! It is not in ordered rows of dead people, but is alive with trees, flowers and birds. For me  the abundant life speaks more of resurrection than ranks of black marble or white Portland stone, though the Commonwealth Graves Commission keep their cemeteries as near to gardens as possible; a different way of pointing beyond the finality of death.

The Douay Bible translates Job 19:26:

And I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I will see my God. 

And the trees, violets, blue tits, magpies and jays seem to me to bear this out. The photograph was taken in Spring, but even now, as winter approaches, the buds on the branches are full of God’s promise.

WT

 

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8 November: Trumpets shall sound!

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In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall rise again incorruptible: and we shall be changed.  For this corruptible must put on incorruption; and this mortal must put on immortality. And when this mortal hath put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?

1 Corinthians 15:52-55

The Artist at Strasbourg Cathedral shows Christ as Judge, but clearly bearing the marks of his death in his hands and side –  he leans to one side, looking down at those entering the cathedral, hands held in blessing rather than condemnation. His attendant angels display the cross, the lance, the crown of thorns.

It seems to me that rather than see him face to face, the condemned condemn themselves, walking away, bishops, kings and queens, prosperous merchants among them.

Can I even look myself in the mirror, let alone my saviour? Can I carry a thorn or two without complaining, let alone my daily cross?

At the bottom are two reinforcements for the Last Trumpet, and between them the bewildered dead are rising incorruptible. Like Jesus, the artist has shown them as fully human. One, at least, has realised something of what is going on, and is dancing.

May we hear the Last Trumpet even now as it echoes back and forth through eternity, and may our hearts sing and dance before our Lord and Judge, and leave the rest to his mercy.

 

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