Once more I find myself disagreeing with Emily: this time with her possibly tongue-in-cheek condemnation of science. However, her light-hearted, joyful acceptance of creation and of death are refreshing and appropriate for Advent. Refreshing too, her final image of the Father lifting her over the stile of pearl into Heaven. I can almost feel those hands, half circling my chest to lift me to himself, though now it is my privilege to lift grandsons to where they need to be. ‘You have to help me’, even when the child is ‘helping’ you.
No pearls on the stiles shown here, but good, solid, dependable limestone, that humans and dogs can get over, perhaps with a little help; that deer can leap with grace, but sheep are too woolly to manage. Not the best image for Heaven’s gate, perhaps, but there again, the stile is not the gate, not the official entrance where the sheep go in. This is a short cut, and it is not Peter or Michael but the Father himself that is watching here, ready to lift the naughty ones into his everlasting arms.
Arcturus is his other name, —
I'd rather call him star!
It's so unkind of science
To go and interfere!
I pull a flower from the woods, —
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath,
And has her in a class.
Whereas I took the butterfly
Aforetime in my hat,
He sits erect in cabinets,
The clover-bells forgot.
What once was heaven, is zenith now.
Where I proposed to go
When time's brief masquerade was done,
Is mapped, and charted too!
What if the poles should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!
I hope I 'm ready for the worst,
Whatever prank betides!
Perhaps the kingdom of Heaven 's changed!
I hope the children there
Won't be new-fashioned when I come,
And laugh at me, and stare!
I hope the father in the skies
Will lift his little girl, —
Old-fashioned, naughty, everything, —
Over the stile of pearl!"
(from “Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete” by Emily Dickinson)
“Audemus dicere ‘Pater Noster.”*—canon of the mass.
There is a bolder way, There is a wilder enterprise than this All-human iteration day by day. Courage, mankind! Restore Him what is His.
Out of His mouth were given These phrases. O replace them whence they came. He, only, knows our inconceivable “Heaven,” Our hidden “Father,” and the unspoken “Name”;
Our “trespasses,” our “bread,” The “will” inexorable yet implored; The miracle-words that are and are not said, Charged with the unknown purpose of their Lord.
“Forgive,” “give,” “lead us not”— Speak them by Him, O man the unaware, Speak by that dear tongue, though thou know not what, Shuddering through the paradox of prayer.
Alice Meynell, from A Father of Women and other poems, Burns & Oates, London, 1917
* We dare to say ‘Our Father’. The words would have been recited in Latin in 1917.
A warning against taking ourselves and our assumed virtues without a good pinch of salt. We only begin to see what the Lord’s Prayer means when we put the words back onto his tongue, avoiding our short-sighted, self-serving distortions.
And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these. And if the grass of the field, which is to day, and to morrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe: how much more you, O ye of little faith?
Matthew 6: 28-30.
The photo is from January last year, but could have been taken today, had the skies not been so grey. I always enjoy our early violets that bloom before their season. They put me in mind of this Gospel passage. I don’t think this was just a throwaway line of Jesus; he wants us to give our attention to the flowers and how they grow and are provided with sunshine, soil and water. That includes solid science.
These violets did not appear by magic, nor do they survive by magic. The bed they grow in was created at the edge of a footpath maybe 20 years ago, with shrubs lining a brick wall and violets providing ground cover beneath, shadowing out any weed seeds that might try and grow there. It’s almost a self-sustaining habitat now, requiring annual pruning of the bushes, and an occasional thinning of the violets.
I once declined to look after the garden of a lady who wanted me to uproot the violets carpeting her rose bed. The combination struck me as one of the most attractive prospects of her plot and she wanted to be rid of it! Removing the violets would have been against nature. Other plants would have come along to fill the space, requiring repeat weedings in turn. Working with nature allows our violets to do what they do best, bringing a smile to the faces of passing humans.
Pat, a girl I once worked with, had no money on her mother’s birthday, but had never noticed the bank of violets by their front fence. We gathered a fine posy to mark the day. Consider the flowers! They can speak of our love for each other as well as God’s love for us. Let’s work with him to restore beauty to our world.
Ephesians 3:14-21 May Christ dwell in our hearts Luke 2:41-52 Mary treasured all these things
The encounter with Jesus gives rise to the desire to stay with him and to abide in him: a time in which fruit matures. Being fully human, like us Jesus grew and matured. He lived a simple life, rooted in the practices of his Jewish faith. In this hidden life in Nazareth, where apparently nothing extraordinary happened, the presence of the Father nourished him. Mary contemplated the actions of God in her life and in that of her son. She treasured all these things in her heart. Thus, little by little, she embraced the mystery of Jesus. We too need a long period of maturation, an entire lifetime, in order to plumb the depths of Christ’s love, to let him abide in us and for us to abide in him. Without our knowing how, the Spirit makes Christ dwell in our hearts. And it is through prayer, by listening to the word, in sharing with others, by putting into practice what we have understood, that the inner being is strengthened. “Letting Christ descend into the depths of our being … He will penetrate the regions of the mind and the heart, he will reach our flesh unto our innermost being, so that we too will one day experience the depths of mercy.” [The Sources of Taizé (2000) p. 134]
Holy Spirit, May we receive in our hearts the presence of Christ, and cherish it as a secret of love. Nourish our prayer, enlighten our reading of Scripture, act through us, so that the fruits of your gifts can patiently grow in us.
Questions • The Bible tells us very little about Jesus’ youth and early adulthood, when he seems to have lived an ordinary life in Nazareth. How are you conscious of God’s presence with you in the everyday things of life? • In your church or group of churches how do you nurture your children and young people to walk with God in their everyday lives, and how could you do this better? • What does the churches having a ‘presence’ together in the community look like in your area?
Pope Francis has declared this to be the Year of Saint Joseph, the Man with the Father’s Heart. Here is the thinking behind that, from his letter, Patris Corde – with a Father’s Heart.
Now, one hundred and fifty years after his proclamation as Patron of the Catholic Church by Blessed Pius IX (8 December 1870), I would like to share some personal reflections on this extraordinary figure, so close to our own human experience. For, as Jesus says, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34).
My desire to do so increased during these months of pandemic, when we experienced, amid the crisis, how “our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people, people often overlooked. People who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines, or on the latest television show, yet in these very days are surely shaping the decisive events of our history. Doctors, nurses, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caregivers, transport workers, men and women working to provide essential services and public safety, volunteers, priests, men and women religious, and so very many others. They understood that no one is saved alone… How many people daily exercise patience and offer hope, taking care to spread not panic, but shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday ways, how to accept and deal with a crisis by adjusting their routines, looking ahead and encouraging the practice of prayer. How many are praying, making sacrifices and interceding for the good of all”.
Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation. A word of recognition and of gratitude is due to them all.
We think of Christmas as a time of generosity, but do we stop to think what that means? Sister Johanna did not write this reflection specifically for Advent, but it challenges us to go to the roots of generosity, to the creator who gives us everything, in due season.
Why should you be envious because I am generous? (Mt.20:15)
The question, ‘Why should you be envious because I am generous,’ comes at the end of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. If you are not sure which parable I mean, have a look at Mt. 20: 1-16. Instead of recounting the whole story here in detail, I’d like to take two days to concentrate on only two aspects of this rich and beautiful parable.
The first thing that I noticed on reading the parable of the labourers this time is that the notion of generosity is evident right from the beginning in the way the vineyard owner actually goes out to the busy marketplace to look for workers to hire. He doesn’t sit back and say to himself, “I’m big and important. Let them come to me if they want a job.” He goes out looking for workers, again and again, at different times in the day – once is not enough for him; he cannot seem to rest until he has employed as many workers as possible. Is he doing this for the sake of his business? One would assume so, but the parable doesn’t exactly say this, and I am a bit tempted to wonder why the vineyard owner isn’t organised enough to know how many workers he needs to begin with.
We see him going out repeatedly, and each time finding men ‘standing idle’ in the village square and saying ‘You go to my vineyard, too.’ This suggests to me that the Lord wants us to think that this vineyard owner might be more concerned to provide work for those who need it than to run an efficient business. My theory seems even more plausible in light of what he does the last time he goes out, when it’s “the eleventh hour”. There are still people standing idly in the marketplace, and he asks them why they have been idle all day long. There’s a hint of a reproach here, I think. And their answer is not stellar: ‘Because no one has hired us’ – or in other words, “Not our fault, mate.” The vineyard owner might have written them off as lazy lumps, without a shred of initiative. But he doesn’t. He gives them a chance, too, and invites even this dubious crowd into his vineyard to work with the others.
Although there are some aspects of this parable that have given me problems over the years, this part of the story has always been easy for me to transmute into a description of God’s loving grace. True, on a bad day, I may feel that in my relationship with God, I’m the one who is searching for him, and he’s the elusive one. But when I look more deeply into the events of my life, I see clearly that God is the one who has gone out to the busy ‘marketplace’ of my life and noticed that I was not in his employ. Without hesitation, he offered me a position as a worker in his vineyard. Did I have any qualifications? Not one. This position was given to me in my baptism; with God, you learn by doing. The learning was further strengthened by the other sacraments of the Church, and was made fast by my vocation to monastic life. None of this came about because I made it happen – especially my monastic vocation (which actually took me quite by surprise). God sought me, attracted me, prepared me and made it all possible. And it’s not over yet. I now know that I will always be on the receiving end of the Father’s generosity. My search for him is always wedded to and made possible by his search for me.
What’s more, as a member of the Church, I am a member of a group, a community of other workers who are all objects of the Father’s ceaseless pursuit and beneficiaries of this generosity. I do not work alone in his vineyard. As an ecclesial community, we witness together to this mystery of call and of service. How? In terms of this parable, we can say that each one in our own way is contributing to the “wine-making” business of the Father – which is to say, we are a Eucharistic community. Our response to his invitation, then, contributes to the making of the blood of Christ, the spiritual drink – a heavenly “product.” How blessed is that?
Tomorrow, I would like to look at a second aspect of this parable. SJC.
We mentioned Minster Abbey yesterday. Here’s a true story from the Turnstone family archives, going back more years than I can calculate.
One day when Mrs Turnstone was over-tired from sleepless nights with baby Evelyn, I decided to take her on the train to visit the sisters at Minster Abbey with big sister Rosie. While Sisters A & B and I were talking, Rose was demolishing monastic hospitality in the shape of a plateful of custard cream biscuits. They erupted in the middle of the night, undoing the good work of a long siesta for her poor mother! Rose has been off custard creams ever since. It even used to made her feel sick when the train passed through the scent of the biscuit factory on its way into London Bridge!
Is there a moral to this story? Be a better Dad, and give your child only appropriate food, physical, mental and spiritual, and in due season and due quantities. It sounds like one of the easier challenges for a Dad, but …. (No, I can’t blame the sisters!)
Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? Matthew 24.45
You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thy enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: that you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust. For if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? do not even the publicans this? And if you salute your brethren only, what do you more? do not also the heathens this? Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.
I read this passage from the Sermon on the Mount in June, when Rev Jo Richards was considering, with her churchwardens, how to open up their churches. They felt that with the Cathedral nave open in the evening there would be a building people could enter to pray privately. After Mrs T and I visited, we agreed with them.
But I was reminded of another time we visited; it was for an open evening, where we saw an order of service from 1914-1918, which included a prayer for our enemies. Then as now, Europeans were working in each others’ countries, had spouses, cousins, who were citizens of elsewhere, and suddenly found themselves ‘at war’ with dear ones.
When we pray for our enemies we are praying for our brothers and sisters; let us not make enemies for ourselves today in public or private life.
O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
There is a moment of truth in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when the latent emotions of the rude mechanicals’ play emerge to touch their audience at the wedding feast. At Mass there should be moments of truth. Despite the crooked translation, it is for ministers, to the best of their ability, to speak the words, to love the Word as though it were alive, as though they believe it, as though it were awesome; from ‘In the Name of the Father’ by way of ‘The Word of the Lord’, ‘Through your goodness’, ‘This is my Body’, ‘the Body of Christ’ (looking the communicant in the eye), to ‘Go in Peace’. A challenge, truly.
There are moments in liturgy as in life, when silence can and should be observed:
Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another —
Let us hold hands and look.”
She, such a very ordinary little woman;
He, such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop’s ingle-nook.
John Betjeman, ‘In a Bath Teashop’
Silence can bring focus and awe: when I led Children’s Liturgy of the Word at the parish Mass I used to ask my ‘very ordinary’ child readers to count to ten in their heads to allow reflection between the bidding – let us ask God to …, and its prayer – Lord hear us.
Silence between the consecration and the acclamation; silence before inviting everyone to join in the Lord’s Prayer, silence after communion: these can inspire a sense of awe. All should participate in these silences, unlike the silence of the old rite with the priest mumbling prayers and not really silent at all, and the congregation praying the Rosary.
This is the introduction to the first volume of EBB’s Poetical Works. It sees Christ as a second Adam, atoning for the sins of the first Adam and Eve, ‘fallen humanity, as it went forth from Paradise into the wilderness’. And here is Christ in the wilderness, the desert, of the Cross.