Lo! newborn Jesus, Soft and weak and small, Wrapped in baby’s bands By His Mother’s hands, Lord God of all.
Lord God of Mary, Whom His Lips caress While He rocks to rest On her milky breast In helplessness.
Lord God of shepherds Flocking through the cold, Flocking through the dark To the only Ark, The only Fold.
Lord God of all things, Be they near or far, Be they high or low; Lord of storm and snow, Angel and star.
Lord God of all men,– My Lord and my God! Thou who lovest me, Keep me close to Thee By staff and rod.
Lo! newborn Jesus, Loving great and small, Love’s free Sacrifice, Opening Arms and Eyes To one and all.
It’s May but we have not celebrated Mary yet, except in the company of her husband, Joseph. We have also been neglecting poetry, so let’s turn to Christina Rossetti. Childless herself, she captures the sensuous intimacy of the helpless baby, caressing his mother with his kisses. As a baby he opens his eyes and hands to the one he can see clearly; As Saviour he will look with love on each of us; as Good Shepherd he will gather the lost sheep into his arms.
May we follow him, even through the valley of darkness, into the fold that he has made ready for us.
Brother John was close to Francis in life. Perhaps this story should not greatly astonish us.
Saint Francis appeared on another occasion, on Mount Alvernia, to Brother John of Alvernia, a man of great sanctity, whilst he was in prayer, and spoke with him for a long time. And at last as he was about to depart, he said to him : ” Ask of me what thou wilt.”
And Brother John said : ” Father, I pray thee that thou wouldst tell me what I have desired to know for a long time, where thou wert and what thou wert doing when the seraph appeared to thee.’
Then St Francis answered : ” I was praying in that place where stands the chapel of Count Simon of Battifolle, and asked two graces of my Lord Jesus Christ; the first was that He would grant me in this life to feel in my soul and in my body, so far as possible, all the pains that He Himself felt during the time of His bitter Passion. The second grace which I asked of Him was like unto the first, that I might feel in my heart the excessive love which induced Him to suffer such a Passion for us sinners. And then God put it into my heart that He would give me to feel both the one and the other in so far as it was possible for a mere creature ; which thing indeed was fulfilled in me by the impression of the stigmas.”
Brother John asked him again if the secret words which the seraph had spoken to him were such as had been related by the holy brother aforesaid, who affirmed that he had so heard them from St Francis in the presence of eight brothers. And St Francis replied that this was the truth as the brother had said.
Then Brother John, taking courage through this general condescension to his requests, said : ” O father, I beseech thee let me see and kiss thy most holy and glorious stigmas, not that I doubt of aught, but solely for my consolation and because I have always so greatly desired this favour.” And St Francis with good will showed them and presented them to him, so that he both clearly saw and touched, and also kissed them. And finally Brother John asked : ” Father, what consolation didst thou not feel in thy soul when thou didst see Christ the blessed coming to thee to give thee the marks of His most sacred Passion ? Would to God that I might feel a little of the sweetness thereof! ” And St Francis answered: “Seest thou these nails ? ” Brother John said : ” Yes, father.”
Touch once again,” said St Francis, ” this nail in my hand.” Then Brother John with great reverence and fear touched the nail, and as soon as he had touched it there came forth so great a fragrance like to a cloud of incense, that, entering by his nostrils, it filled his soul and his body with such sweetness that immediately he was ravished in ecstasy and became insensible; and thus he remained rapt in God from the hour of terce, when this took place, until vespers.
And Brother John never spoke of this vision and familiar conversation with St Francis except to his confessor until, being near to death, he revealed it to several of the brothers.
Francis’s intuition was indeed a revelation; Madonna Jacopa was in good time to bring him a few treats before saying goodbye. Francis greatly loves her; he is sensitive enough to allow her to show her love for him in such an intimate fashion. She must have been a no-nonsense woman, taking herself straight up to the infirmary which would have been out of bounds to a woman, even the mother of senators.
And, while they continued thus, lo, after a little while, there was a great knocking at the door of the Place, and Saint Francis sent the doorkeeper to open it; and, when he had opened the door, behold, there was Madonna Jacopa, the noblest lady of Rome, with two of her sons, Senators of Rome, and with a great company of men on horseback; and they entered in; and Madonna Jacopa gat her straight to the infirmary, and came unto Saint Francis. Of whose coming St Francis had great joy and consolation, and she likewise, seeing him alive and speaking with him.
Then she told him how God had revealed unto her in Rome, while she was praying, the short span of his life, and how he would send for her, and ask for those things, all of which she said that she had brought; and she caused them to be brought to Saint Francis and gave him to eat thereof; and, when he had eaten and was much comforted, this Madonna Jacopa kneeled down at the feet of Saint Francis, and took those most holy feet, marked and adorned with the wounds of Christ, and kissed and bathed them with her tears, with such limitless devotion that to the friars which were standing by it seemed that they verily beheld the Magdalene at the feet of Jesus Christ; and on nowise might they draw her away from them.
And finally, after a long time, they raised her up and drew her aside, and asked her how she had come so duly and so well provided with all those things which were necessary for Saint Francis while yet he was alive, and for his burial.
Madonna Jacopa replied that, while she was praying one night in Rome, she heard a voice from heaven, which said: “If thou wouldest find Saint Francis alive, get thee to Assisi without delay, and take with thee those things which thou art wont to give him when he is sick, and those things which will be necessary for his burial; and I (said she) have done so”. So the said Madonna Jacopa abode there until Saint Francis passed from this life and was buried; and at his burial she did him very great honour, she and all her company; and she bore all the cost of whatsoever was needed. And thereafter, this noble lady returned to Rome; and there, within a little while, she died a holy death; and for devotion to Saint Francis she commanded that her body should be borne to Santa Maria degli Angeli and buried there; and so was it done.
Yesterday, Tim; today his mother, Sheila, brings a poet’s eye to the face mask and what it might teach us, now and when we can discard them (and please, not on the street!) Thank you again, Sheila for your artist’s wisdom.
Will we remember that we're beautiful?
When, masks discarded, hands once more held out,
Will we remember - beauty born - oh! Beauty born,
Made by Beauty to be beautiful.
Will we recall when the wrinkles show once more, how smiles light up that beauty,
When mouths now visible
May kiss and speak in beauty?
In tenderness, you made it so, in praise, in song?
Will we have forgotten the gentleness of touch?
The scent of the winter's buried spring,
Still masked, but waiting.
But since the desire of holy men, when God delays to hear, doth kindle in them greater love and merit, Christ, the blessed One, departed without hearing him, and without him speaking to him aught at all, and he went by the little pathway aforesaid. Then Brother John arose, and ran after Him, and once again threw himself at His feet, and with holy importunity held Him back, and with most devout tears besought Him, and said: “O most sweet Jesu Christ, have mercy upon me in my trouble; hear me for the multitude of Thy mercies, and for the truth of Thy salvation, and give back to me the joy of Thy countenance and Thy glance of pity, for the whole world is full of Thy mercy. And still Christ departed and spake naught unto him, nor gave him any comfort; and He dealt with him even as a mother with her child, when she makes him desire the breast and makes him run behind weeping, to the end that he may thereafter receive it the more willingly. Brother John still followed Christ with greater fervour and desire; and when he was come close up to Him, the blessed Christ turned and looked upon him with a glad countenance and gracious; and opening His most holy and most pitying arms, embraced him very tenderly; and as He opened thus His arms, Brother John saw streaming from the most sacred breast of the Saviour rays of shining light, which illumined all the wood and him likewise, both in body and soul. Then Brother John kneeled him down at the feet of Christ, and the blessed Christ of His loving kindness gave him His foot to kiss, as He did to the Magdalene; and Brother John holding it and with all reverence, bathed it with so many tears that he seemed a second Magdalene, saying devoutly:
‘I pray Thee, Lord, that Thou look not on my sins, but by Thy most holy passion and by the shedding of Thy most holy blood, revive my soul in the grace of Thy love, sith this is Thy commandment, that we love Thee with all our heart and with all our soul, the which commandment none can keep without Thy help. Help me then, most beloved Son of God, that I may love Thee with all my heart and with all my strength.”
This is a prayer any Christian could make their own; we do not ask to see the distant scene, let alone be assumed into it.
I heard humanity, through all the years,
Wailing, and beating on a dark, vast door
With urgent hands and eyes blinded by tears.
Will none come forth to them for evermore?
Like children at their father’s door, who wait,
Crying ‘Let us in!’ on some bright birthday morn,
Quite sure of joy, they grow disconsolate,
Left in the cold unanswered and forlorn.
Forgetting even their toys in their alarms,
They only long to climb on father’s bed
And cry their terrors out in father’s arms.
And maybe, all the while, their father’s dead.
Here we see that Mary Webb felt the despair that drew the student artist we mentioned yesterday to take her own life. Mary Webb was very close to her father and devastated by his death. Of course there is more than that event here. One reason the Father’s door seems closed to some of God’s children may be that we Christians are not active enough in keeping it open and welcoming.
Time to remember the Doors of Mercy around the world: this one was in Krakow, with the light of the candles welcoming us in. Let us have a light in our smile. ready for anyone who comes our way. Our smile is the Father’s smile, a joyful but tremendous responsibility.
A few days after our return from Wales, we met a friend after Mass. He described how he comes to Church most days: I pray and rest, pray and rest, pray and rest.
No need to cross two Kingdoms to do that! But he follows the advice we were given yesterday:
Let’s be still, our silence marked by the waves, the birds, the feet walking by. And not worry about ‘distractions’!
And here’s support for our friend’s prayer and rest policy from Pope Francis. The i news paper (2/11/17) reports him as saying prayer should make Christians feel like going to sleep in their father’s arms. He even admits to going to sleep when praying, as St Therese did.
Sister Johanna sees more sunrises than most of us. If I got up as early as she does, with a ladder and some glasses I could see to Minster marshes – if it wasn’t for the houses in between. Let’s enjoy her sharing the blessings of sunrise. An appropriate image to ponder when we have the feast of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth tomorrow, a truly ‘warm sunrise of empathy’ and a neat challenge to Darwin.
Altar Cross, St Mary Magdalene, Davington, Kent. MMB
I wrote in the first blog in this series (December 13th, 2015) that we might need a stimulus from outside to grow our childish faith to adulthood as our bodies and minds mature. Therese showed us that. (December 30th, 2015) But we have to be open to growth for it to happen properly. Normally teenagers grow physically into adults without having to think about it, though some will diet to control or arrest the process. Great distress may be caused to themselves and others.
It can be all too easy to feel uncomfortable in one’s own skin if it is spotty or showing ribs or else not showing ribs. Growing in faith can be subject to similar pressures and embarrassments.
But as Pope Francis said on January 8th:
When we have something in our hearts and we want to ask the Lord forgiveness, it is he who awaits us to give forgiveness. This Year of Mercy is also a bit like this: We know that the Lord is waiting for us, each one of us. Why? To embrace us; nothing more. To tell us: ‘Son, daughter, I love you. I let my son be crucified for you; this is the price of my love.’ This is the gift of love.
God will do the same that he did with the prodigal son who spent all his money on vices: He will not let you finish your speech, he will silence you with a hug. The embrace of the love of God.
May we learn to accept and return that embrace from whomsoever God uses to show us his love. And may we be ready for the next person who needs the embrace of a real hug or else a cup of tea or even a smile.