Tag Archives: Faith

29 August: On the seventh day.

Today we share a passage from Saint Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, 11.8. It is Saint Augustine’s feast day, and it is holiday time, so when better to ask,

What we are to understand of God’s resting on the seventh day, after the six days’ work?

Augustine’s answer to this question may surprise us, coming from a man of the 4th and 5th Centuries. God does not need to rest from toil, as we humans do, for he created all things by his Word – he spake and it was done. So God’s rest is the rest he created for us – and other parts of his creation – and it is part of his plan of creation, even before the Fall. As Augustine says in The Confessions:

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

When it is said that God rested on the seventh day from all His works, and hallowed it, we are not to conceive of it in a childish fashion, as if work were a toil to God, who “spake and it was done,”—spake by the spiritual and eternal, not audible and transitory word. But God’s rest signifies the rest of those who rest in God, as the joy of a house means the joy of those in the house who rejoice, though not the house, but something else, causes the joy.

How much more intelligible is such phraseology, then, if the house itself, by its own beauty, makes the inhabitants joyful! For in this case we not only call it joyful by that figure of speech in which the thing containing is used for the thing contained (as when we say, “The theatres applaud,” “The meadows low,” meaning that the men in the one applaud, and the oxen in the other low), but also by that figure in which the cause is spoken of as if it were the effect, as when a letter is said to be joyful, because it makes its readers so. Most appropriately, therefore, the sacred narrative states that God rested, meaning thereby that those rest who are in Him, and whom He makes to rest.

And this the prophetic narrative promises also to the men to whom it speaks, and for whom it was written, that they themselves, after those good works which God does in and by them, if they have managed by faith to get near to God in this life, shall enjoy in Him eternal rest. This was prefigured to the ancient people of God by the rest enjoined in their sabbath law.

But rest is not idleness: it comes after ‘those good works which God does in and by them’. As we read recently, Thomas Traherne reminds us that, ‘The soul is made for action, and cannot rest till it be employed.’

Let’s pray for the grace to get on with our task in life, and to observe a Sabbath for our soul’s sake, however and whenever circumstances allow.

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23 August: Faith in the 18th Century towns.

Manchester’s Collegiate Church became its Cathedral in 1847.

In this post from the John Rylands Library in Manchester Kate Gibson uses letters from the Nicholson family to demonstrate that religious faith did not die out in the mushrooming industrial towns of Britain.

Her project, Faith in the Town: Lay Religion, Urbanisation and Industrialisation in England, 1740-1830, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is looking at the letters and diaries of ordinary people living in the towns of Northern England, for evidence of the place of faith in their daily lives. Unlike many histories of secularisation which focus on formal church organisations and their records, we argue that looking at the everyday practices of faith, and its relationship with how people thought about their family lives, their identities, their work and their use of urban and domestic space, provides a more vibrant picture of the continued importance of religion in this period. This is a history of faith from the bottom up, not the top down.

Faith in the Town has many interesting posts that may challenge us today, when our church communities have been in enforced hibernation. What can we and our buildings offer by way of space to be quiet and simple, welcoming, common worship for members and non-members alike?

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11 August: An American Story from 1921

Image from SJC

Another serious and humorous story. E.V. Lucas crossed the US from West to East soon after the Great War, staying in hotels or with friends. It was about 14 years since a destructive earthquake hit San Francisco, but California was still booming. There were, though, a few people who were rather more solitary, and here we meet one of them.

I heard many stories in America, where every one is a raconteur, but none was better than this, which my San Francisco host narrated, from his own experience, as the most perfect example of an honest answer ever given.

When a boy, he said, he was much in the company of an old trapper in the Californian mountains. During one of their expeditions together he noticed that a camp meeting was to be held, and out of curiosity he persuaded Reuben to attend it with him. Perched on a back seat, they were watching the scene when an elderly Evangelical sister placed herself beside the old hunter, laid her hand on his arm, and asked him if he loved Jesus. He pondered for some moments and then replied thus: “Waal, ma’am, I can’t go so far as to say that I love Him. I can’t go so far as that. But, by gosh, I’ll say this—I ain’t got nothin’ agin Him.”

From “Roving East and Roving West” by E. V. Lucas, 1921.

There are times when I feel the old trapper’s words are spot on: ‘Love him. I can’t go so far as that.’ That would be an honest but incomplete assessment based on conscience rather than aspiration. Think of Peter at the end of John’s Gospel: he was more than aware of his lack of love, but still said to Jesus, You know I love you.

Perhaps the trapper had pondered these things in his heart during his hours, days, and weeks of mountain solitude, but he was not ready with the right words when the sister touched his arm.

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2 August: A Ugandan ‘thank you’ to Pope Francis for creating the catechist ministry

Oola Bosco, a catechist, teaches at the Palabek Refugee Settlement March 2021 in Uganda. Many of the refugees at the settlement are from South Sudan. (Courtesy of Lazar Arasu)

 

A Ugandan ‘thank you’ to Pope Francis for creating the catechist ministry by Lazar Arasu from National Catholic Reporter, June 30. A taste of the article follows; the whole piece can be found at this link.

Moses Kiggwa is a dedicated catechist in Kamuli parish within Jinja Diocese, which is about 70 miles east of our capital of Kampala. Besides training as a primary teacher, he also trained himself as a catechist.

“I find joy in being a catechist more than anything else,” Moses told me recently. He eventually gave up his teaching career to be a full-time evangelizer. He noted with pride that he has helped to found several sub-parishes in the remote areas of his parish, along the Nile River.

Now in his late 50s, he is still committed to educating people to faith. Riding his bicycle for several years in his evangelization efforts has created serious health problems, but he is only happy that he has sustained the faith of several hundreds of people.

Surely there are lessons for the rest of the Church from the long-standing ministry of catechists in countries like Uganda?

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21 July: Dancing in the aisles.

African music on the march at the St Maurice Pilgrimage, Switzerland.

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.

Psalm 149.3

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17 July, Review: Something nobody can explain.

The Catholic Guide to Miracles: Separating the: Adam Blai

Fifteen minutes walk from my home in England is a gallery in stained glass of healings at the tomb of  Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his cathedral. Many miracle stories can still be traced there, almost 500 years since the martyr’s shrine was destroyed under Henry VIII. 

In 2020 a shrine was reinstated in Saint Thomas’s Catholic church, a hundred yards away, but I have not yet heard of any miracles there. On the other hand, there have been occasions when each of my children came close enough to accidental death for me to be immediately and eternally grateful to God for their preservation. Divine intervention? It felt like it!

This is a review of Adam Blai: The Catholic Guide to Miracles – Separating the Authentic from the Counterfeit. Manchester New Hampshire, SOPHIA INSTITUTE PRESS, 2012.

So what is a miracle? Adam Blai starts with Thomas Aquinas’s definition: ‘a true miracle is something that has a cause that is absolutely hidden from everyone, and that nobody, no matter how knowledgeable, can explain’. (p 2) Creation was the first miracle, the Universe made out of nothing. 

Adam Blai takes us through Old Testament Miracles: for example, the healing miracles brought about through the prayer of Elisha and Elijah before him, each restoring to life the son of a woman benefactor. Strangely though, Blai does not acknowledge that many of the Plagues of Egypt have plausibly been ascribed to natural causes.

It is the New Testament that tells of the greatest miracle:

And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. (1 Cor. 15:14) 

In the years before the cross and resurrection, Christ performed many miracles, miracles that Blai tells us ‘were proofs beyond His words of who He was’ (p13). Those who see the Church’s preaching as empty will explain them away, and many of the healings at Thomas’s shrine could now be attributed to natural causes. The Church is well aware of this, which is why so few – 60 or 70 – healings at Lourdes in 260 years have been verified as miraculous, a minute proportion of the pilgrims who visit in hope of healing. Blai, like the Church herself, is not naive in the face of healing miracles, but he points out that they are the miracles most open to investigation and so are resorted to in the process of canonisation of saints.

There are, of course, other miracles – he cites the appearances of Mary through the ages, and the healings and other phenomena that people other than the visionaries themselves have witnessed. There are also apparently supernatural events recorded around certain saints: stigmata, levitation, bodily incorruption, and miracles deriving from the Eucharistic elements. Although many such stories were reverently told in my Catholic school, a more mature faith leaves them open to question. Adam Blai accepts God’s interventions but he would not build his faith on these accounts. 

In fact Blai is at pains to point out that there are counterfeit miracles. Discerning the difference between supernatural miracles, counterfeits brought about by demons, and mental illness is an important part of his work for the Church (p129); for example, once correctly diagnosed the mentally ill person may be led to accept appropriate help. Yet there are those whose delusions are deep-rooted but also have the charisma to attract others to what becomes a dangerous cult.

Counterfeit, charismatic faith healers are another dangerous group who use people’s fascination – or gullibility – around miracles to line their own pockets, dividing families in the process. 

A greater concern for Blai in his work, if not for the average believer who may live a lifetime without coming across such people, is demonic possession and fake miracles. A devil cannot produce a real miracle, but can set up counterfeits, and during exorcism may cry out in protest at being evicted.

I knew someone who was using a ouija board which went silent when, unknown to her, the local priest called on her parents; another young woman was greatly distressed to be told that her boyfriend was soon to die horribly in a road accident. The spirit that may be conjured up in such seances cannot be relied on to be truthful, as I told her; the accident did not happen, but the distress was real and hurtful. The reader will find a full exposé of the ouija board in this volume.

If miracles and the supernatural interest you, this book will give substance to your enquiries. It’s important not to get carried away by miracles that add nothing to the revelation of God’s love for all women and men in Christ Jesus. See them as a new expression of his love, for one person or for many, often for a limited time, like the miracles at Becket’s tomb in Canterbury.

I was glad to read this wise paragraph from Adam Blai’s conclusion (p164).

Real miracles are proofs of God, but we cannot build a faith based only on them. We need a living relationship with God through His Church. The main vehicles of grace are the Word of God and the sacraments, instituted by Christ. The center and goal of Christian faith is a living relationship with Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.

MMB

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10 June: More Passion flowers

One day earlier this month, my walk took me through Canterbury cemetery once again. This time I saluted a few familiar names, since I passed near the Catholic corner, but then wandered into an older section I’d not visited before and found two passion flower crosses to add to our collection. One was covered in multicoloured lichen and not suitable for reproduction, but then there was this, erected in the first years of the XX Century.

It combines the Celtic Cross, the Greek Letters IHS – short for Jesus – at its centre, with the halo of passion vine leaves around it, and the passion vine itself, bringing the Cross to flowering splendour.

The passion flower represents the saving death of Jesus. There are ten petals for the ten apostles who did not deny him – leaving out Peter and Judas. There are five stamens representing the five wounds; three stigma for the nails, and the fringe of filaments around the flower stands for the crown of thorns. The beauty of the flower proclaims the resurrection.

By carving this flower over their dear ones’ graves, the family were indeed proclaiming that the dead would rise again with Christ. When you see a passion flower let it remind you that Jesus is real, his death was real, as indeed will ours be – but so, too, will our rising. And when you see a passion flower on a gravestone, pray for those lying there.

An earlier post about Passion flowers can be read here.

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16 May: World Communications Day.

The reader, Zakopane, Poland.

From a homily of Saint Oscar Romero, 1978, as relevant now as then.

Today the universal church celebrates World Communications Day. Let me say a few words to make all Catholics mindful of the importance of using the media of social communication in a critical and conscientious way. Through these marvellous means of communication—such as newspapers, radio, television, cinema—many ideas are communicated to large numbers of people, but often the media serve as tools of confusion. These instruments, as creators of public opinion, are often manipulated by materialist interests and are used to maintain an unjust state of affairs through falsehood and confusion. There is a lack of respect for one of the most sacred rights of the human person, the right to be well informed, the right to the truth. Each person must defend this right for himself or herself by using the media critically. Not everything in the newspapers, not everything in the movies or on television, not everything that is heard on the radio is true. Often it is just the opposite, a lie.


That is why critical people must know how to filter the media to avoid being poisoned with whatever falls into their hands. This is the type of awareness that the church wants to awaken today as we celebrate World Communications Day. We want people to read the newspapers critically and be able to say, «This is a lie! This is not the same thing that was said yesterday! This is a distortion because I have seen the opposite stated!» Being critical is a vital characteristic in our day, and because the church attempts to implant this critical awareness, she is facing some very serious conflicts. The reason is that the dominant interests want to keep people half-asleep. They do not want people who are critical and know how to discern between truth and falsehood. I believe that never before has there existed in the world, especially in a setting like ours, such a struggle—a struggle unto death—between the truth and the lie. The conflict at this time can be reduced to this: either truth or lies. Let us not forget that great saying of Christ: «The truth will set you free» (John 8:32). Let us always seek the truth!

There is a saying of Saint Augustine that I believe is very appropriate for these times: Libenter credimus quod credere volumus, which means, «We gladly believe what we want to believe». That is why it is so difficult to believe the truth: often we don’t want to believe the truth because it disturbs our conscience. But even though the truth may disturb us, we must accept it, and we must want to believe in it so that the Lord will always bless us with the freedom of those who love the truth. We should not be among those who sell the truth or their pens or their voices or their media to the highest bidder or to materialist interests. How sad it is to see so many pens being sold, so many tongues being fed through the slanderous words broadcast on the radio. Often the truth produces not money but only bitterness, yet it is better to be free in the truth than to have great wealth in mendacity.

St Oscar Romero, Ascension of the Lord. 7 May 1978
Read or listen to the homilies of St Oscar Romero at romerotrust.org.uk

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26 March: lightly locked, Gates VIII.

“The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.

“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet 
And the sea rises higher. 

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

Even as she spoke she was not,
Nor any word said he, 
He only heard, still as he stood
Under the old night’s nodding hood,
The sea-folk breaking down the wood
Like a high tide from sea.

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25 March: As Jesus was Speaking Luke 11:27-28

Sister Johanna was not thinking solely of the Annunciation when she composed this reflection, but the whole relationship between Jesus and Mary is there, as a newly germinated seed.

The woman who engages Jesus in this story receives his attention, respect, and a challenge. Our picture from the Baptistry of the Abbey of St Maurice, Switzerland, shows another encounter between Jesus and a woman – the Samaritan at the Well. Jesus is shown as the Word, his book showing Alpha and Omega, symbols to be engraved upon the Paschal Candle in ten days from now.

As Jesus was Speaking (Luke 11:27-28)

It happened that as Jesus was speaking, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, ‘Blessed the womb that bore you and the breasts that fed you!’ But he replied, ‘More blessed still are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’ (see Luke 11:27-28).

Jesus’ behaviour to women is a study that goes far beyond what I can do in a short reflection. But I think it might be safe to say that in his conduct toward women Jesus is both straightforward and courteous. At times he is more the first than the second, and becomes surprisingly frank – but only with those women who reveal in the course of the conversation that they are capable of dealing with his frankness – and he seems to be unerring in knowing who they are ahead of time. Something in their glance, maybe? Or the way they stand? I don’t know. But in this instance, recorded by St Luke (11:27-28), Jesus takes the other approach. He is very gentle here in the way he corrects this woman’s words.

She is clearly a well-meaning person, but nonetheless, she only gets it partially right and Jesus is not really happy with what she says. This passage has often puzzled me; at first glance, I couldn’t find anything really wrong with her words. I wondered why Jesus found it necessary to add his bit. Why couldn’t he just let it go? After all, his mother was blessed. As I was pondering this seemingly small exchange and asking the Lord to enlighten me about it, it occurred to me for the first time that the words the woman uses in praise of Jesus’ mother may very well have been an expression that was common among pious Jewish women at that time – almost formulaic. A bit of research revealed that my hunch was correct.* It’s likely that these words were a saying used when it was clear that some woman’s grown son had turned out well. Even so, what is wrong with it?

As I pondered, the matter began to clarify. First I realised that, yes, Jesus’ mother deserves praise, always and everywhere, but Jesus was not content to let his mother be praised in words that failed to take in the full scope of her blessedness. She was not blessed merely because she bore Jesus and fed him. Such a blessing could apply to every mother who succeeds in bearing and feeding her child. But Jesus knew well and truly that no one had ever been or would ever be like his mother. Such faith as hers was unprecedented in religious history. The archangel Gabriel visited her, proclaimed her ‘full of grace,’ and gave her God’s message. She, in turn, gave her entire being, body and soul, to God in her response to the angel’s words, and she conceived Jesus miraculously, not by sexual intercourse, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. In every sense, and throughout her entire life, Jesus’ mother lived her faith in a way that was beyond the power of ordinary words to praise. And yet, here she was, being praised in a mere commonplace. Jesus knew he needed somehow to adjust the inadequate words that were cried out by this well-meaning woman – and without hurting her.

But even more needed to be said. (I wonder if Jesus groaned a bit inwardly on first hearing the woman’s words.) Although the words were mainly about Jesus’ mother, Jesus himself was misrepresented by them. He – unlike us in our wandering life-journey – never lost sight of his identity as Son, and of his mission to the world. Therefore, anything implying that he could be properly understood as, say, his mother’s ‘pride and joy,’ was so wide of the mark that it could not be allowed at all. It would confuse matters, not so much for Jesus, but for his followers. Because of who Jesus and Mary are, they had a unique relationship in an absolute sense. Jesus did not live in such a way as to fulfil an ordinary mother’s ordinary expectations – the episode of finding Jesus in the temple when he was twelve years old makes that clear (see Luke 2: 41-50) – if any clarity was needed after the extraordinary revelations of glory surrounding Jesus’ birth. Jesus loved his mother – and provided for her care with his last breath as he died on the Cross (see John 19:26-27) – but he is not the doting son in any common sense. And surely, by this time in Jesus’ adult life, his mother will have grasped – somehow – the unfathomable truth that her son was the Father’s Beloved Son, and that his mission as saviour of the world superseded all other claims, hers included. So, as I reflect, I become aware that we are not meant to pigeon-hole Jesus as this woman’s words seem to do. His identity and mission, as well as his mother’s identity and mission, are matters for deepest contemplation. We will never plumb their depths – certainly not in this life. Therefore Jesus and Mary exist, then and now, as a challenge to our cultural mores, our family customs, and even some of our religious categories. These woman’s words of praise unwittingly “shrink” both Jesus and Mary down to a size that seems more manageable, but, in doing so, she also makes Jesus and Mary too small even to recognise.

What was Jesus to do in this awkward situation? How to respond?

Masterfully, brilliantly, Jesus, in one sentence, managed to achieve everything. First, he was able to use some of the woman’s words, as if to tell her, ‘Yes, what you say is good. But together we can make it even better.’ (Few of us would object to that.) So Jesus keeps hold of her desire to give a blessing (thereby affirming her) and says, ‘More blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’ In these words, Jesus praises his mother rightly, for she alone of all women heard the word of God through the Angel Gabriel’s message and opened her heart and body to a depth that was and remains unprecedented. She ‘kept’ the word of God by literally giving birth to the word of God. Jesus does not want to give a theology lesson to the woman here, but he leaves us with words of such profundity that they are still yielding treasures to us two millennia later. Second, Jesus opens up this blessing to apply it to all people, men and women alike – even the hapless speaker in our text. The motherhood of Mary is, in fact, a vocation open to every person who hears the word of God and keeps it. Jesus had, after all, been speaking to a crowd of people. (‘As he was speaking,’ the text says, ‘a woman in the crowd’ cried out.) Jesus is always keen to invite all people into the state of blessedness and joy that is one of the signs of the presence of the kingdom now, on earth. This situation gave Jesus the opportunity to teach a deep truth about the kingdom and invite everyone in. And lastly, there is an implication about Jesus himself contained in his words. Jesus is the word of God. To ‘hear’ the word of God and ‘keep’ it is to be in a dynamic relationship not merely with a biblical text, but with the person of Jesus. There is no greater joy, no greater blessing than that.

This is a biblical text of only two lines. Look at it closely and it tells a story, which, had it happened to anyone else, would doubtless have ended rather awkwardly. But it happened to Jesus, and without distressing any well-meaning actor in this story, he broadens its message to praise his mother rightly, and include all men, all women, and all time in a salvific blessedness that will endure even in heaven. Blessed be He!

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