In 1927 then-Bishop Angelo Roncalli was Pope Pius XI’s representative in the predominantly Orthodox kingdom of Bulgaria. As there were very few Catholics in the country, it was largely his responsibility to organise and unite the Church, scattered as it was in small groups in far-flung districts, travelling often on poor roads, beset with bandits. Roncalli was often lonely and in danger; he was regarded with suspicion when he first arrived. He wrote to a priest friend:
It is not that the reasons for my troubled mind last year have ceased to exist; no, they are all still there, almost as powerful as before. But I found a reason for life and a reason for suffering; and so I live and suffer willingly…
From the outset of my episcopacy I have recited one of the prayers of the Exercises of Saint Ignatius, and I still say it. Well, one morning when I was suffering more than usual, I became aware that my state indicated precisely that my prayer had been granted.
Receive, O Lord, my whole liberty,
receive my memory, my intelligence,
and all my will.
All that I have and possess
was given to me by you,
I give it back to you entirely.
Do with it as you will.
Give me only thy love with thy grace
and I am rich enough
and ask for nothing more.
From John XXIII by Leone Algisi, Catholic Book Club 1966, p77.
The American writer Henry Thoreau claimed that we should not judge our wealth by the things we possess but by the amount of free time that we have.
By Eddie Gilmore of the London Irish chaplaincy. Welcome back, Eddie!
By Thoreau’s reckoning I’ve been pretty wealthy during the pandemic due in part to working from home. My working day used to involve three or four hours of commuting and so I’ve had that time for other things. After the first lockdown had eased I was cycling with a guy in my club called Steve who, pre-Covid, I would see from time to time on the train back from London. He said that previously at a quarter to five he would be clearing his desk and getting ready to head to St Pancras to catch the train. “Now,” he explained to me with evident delight, “I walk down the garden path to the shed to get my bike out and I’m off.” It was a bit the same for me last summer: down to the shed at the bottom of the garden, bike out and away. I needed something a bit different this year and the Korean study has filled up a lot of my free time nicely, although I’ve still relished the extra time for a variety of sporting and other pursuits.
St Augustine described the monastic life as otium sanctum, which can be translated as holy leisure. The American Trappist monk Thomas Merton touches on the theme of otium sanctum in his book ‘Spiritual Direction and Meditation’. ‘Business is not the supreme virtue,’ he writes, ‘and sanctity is not measured by the amount of work we accomplish.’ That’s not to say that no work or business is conducted in a monastery. On the contrary, monasteries through the ages have been hives of activity, and you’re also as likely to find workaholics there as anywhere, Merton himself having been one of them! Yet, there’s a structure and a balance to the monastic day that gives time to work, time to pray, time to eat, time to read or study, time to rest, and time just to gaze upon the flowers in the fields. It’s the active in harmony with the contemplative, and a little sign that all of our time, ultimately, is a gift.
Having free time doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing but being perhaps less driven and more conscious and intentional about what we’re doing in any given moment. I like that the word leisure comes from the Latin licere, meaning ‘to be permitted’ or ‘to be free’. I also like one of the definitions of that Latin word ‘otium’: ‘leisure time in which a person can enjoy eating, playing, resting, contemplation and academic endeavors.’ The key, perhaps, is taking time to enjoy and savour each moment in the day, and to take pleasure in the world and in those around us; to sit on a bench, to smell a rose, to listen to the birds singing. It could even be experienced in the midst of writing a report or a funding application, or when doing a 100 mile cycle ride! All is given, all is gift.
The key for Thick Naht Hahn, the Vietnamese monk and poet, is mindfulness. He counsels that when eating a tangerine, be aware that you are eating a tangerine! When drinking a cup of tea, be aware that you’re drinking a cup of tea! Just as in a Japanese tea ceremony, each step of the process is important and given the right amount of time and awareness: boiling the kettle, preparing the vessels, warming the pot, pouring the water, waiting for the tea to brew; and then sipping, smelling, savouring. Perhaps even giving a little thought and a blessing to those who grew the tea and picked and dried the leaves.
I’ll shortly have the great gift of two week’s of holiday in which Yim Soon and I will walk the West Highland Way in Scotland followed by Ben Nevis and then a few days on the Isle of Skye. I will consider myself the wealthiest person alive to have such otium sanctum and to be able to spend it in such a place and in such company.
Continuing Sister Johanna’s reflection from yesterday.
Yesterday, we left the seventy-two missionary disciples when they were feeling wonderful in the knowledge that they would be powerful in Jesus’ name. Jesus himself had just assured them of it (Luke 10:19). Which brings me to the next point in this reflection. It is a joy beyond all joys to work for the Lord and to be an instrument of his power and love. Jesus appreciates that the disciples are experiencing something they’ve never experienced before – and they can barely contain themselves. Perhaps they have even been slightly unbalanced by this experience. Who wouldn’t be? For, in addition to their joy, the entire experience – the journey, their success in preaching the Kingdom and in healing the sick, and, to cap all, their power over the demons – must have given this group of seventy-two men an enormous sense of power. And power can be a danger for those who wield it. No one was ever more astute than Jesus about the dangers of power. He wants the disciples to begin to understand this danger. He now has some sobering words for his missionaries.
The gospels are completely honest in recounting the instances when the disciples reveal that they are preoccupied by issues of power – their own power as a group against the Roman occupation, the apparent power of particular individuals within their group, Jesus’ power in relation to the religious establishment were just a few of the power-issues that distracted them. Jesus has repeatedly tried to lead them away from this preoccupation with power (cf. Luke 9:46-50). But now, here they go again. They have suddenly experienced a new kind of power – spiritual power. This is the most dangerous power of all. And they like it. They like it a lot.
Their words to Jesus when they arrive seem to indicate that they have seen that their spiritual power over the demons depends on their use of Jesus’ name. So that’s something. At least they have a vague notion that they are not the authors of the power they have exercised. Good, but not great, seems to be the judgement of Jesus about this. His words of warning come quickly: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you.”
Now’s the time for the newly minted missionaries to feel like the novices they are, to shuffle their feet and look down at the ground. Jesus’ words make them see that they’ve been gloating rather a lot, and feeling a bit smug and self-congratulatory – precisely because the spirits submitted to them. Jesus wants it to be very clear to them that only by his election are they themselves safe from the demonic. They must keep their attention focused not on who or what has submitted to them, but on where they themselves need to be – and who they need to submit to in order to get there. In case they weren’t sure, Jesus tells them: “Rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven.”
Their names are written in heaven – that is their reason to rejoice. They must keep their focus on heaven – because their names might not have been written there. They, of themselves, are nothing special. They are safe, they are heading for heaven, because Jesus is leading and protecting them; they are strong over Satan because of Jesus’ strength working through them. They bear a power in their hands, but it is not intrinsic to them, and without Jesus, they have no power at all. Jesus is the one to be thinking about. His love is their reason to rejoice.
They began their missionary journey taking nothing with them, at Jesus’ instructions. In this way, through the extreme vulnerability that their physical poverty would have awakened, Jesus meant to wake them up to the fact that everything good that happened to them between the beginning and the end of their journey was due to his gift to them. Luke’s gospel leaves us there, ending the account of the missionaries’ return rather abruptly, and not elaborating further on the episode. We, the readers, suddenly find ourselves alone, and left to consider how this story challenges us. Where is our focus? Are we preoccupied by power-issues? Do we keep our eyes on Jesus? Does Jesus have something to say to us?
*The Bible translation used throughout this reflection is The New Jerusalem Bible.
Was Elizabeth’s pregnancy planned? The idea of an old couple, an old childless couple, planning a pregnancy sounds crazy, but of course it was not their idea, Someone Else had planned it, they had to make His plan their own.
Zachary’s mutism was perhaps a gift, not a punishment; time to reflect, writing the essentials on a clay tablet, time for patience. Did he need nine months of patience after all those years of waiting, of prayer, of resignation? Perhaps he did. This time he had the promise visibly being fulfilled in Elizabeth’s swelling womb; she herself was filled with joyful acceptance and sang when her cousin appeared, complete with her own unlooked-for but now expected little one.
Zachary it was who had the task of telling everyone the name of his son: his loss of speech seems to have led his neighbours to believe he had lost his mind as well. John was certainly a gift for his parents, but also a gift for the people of Israel. But caring for his parents in old age? No: the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel. (Luke 2.80)
God used Angels to take the Good News of John and Jesus to their parents, parents who were together and who loved and supported each other. But sometimes pregnancy can seem like a disaster, not a gift. I’d like to share these words of Susannah Black which are from the transcript of a discussion with Paul Mommsen and Zito Madu at The PloughCast. Ms Black is exploring some of what being pro-life means, and trying to get away from the discussion being focused on the right of the mother versus the right of the unborn.
Tap on the link for the full transcript.
One of the transformations of ways that I’ve gone about being pro-life has been to move from a discussion of the right to life, away from that and away from a rights-based discussion to just like, “What is the good here? Is there a good in the existence of human beings? Is there a good in a human baby however and wherever, whether or not that baby was planned and is that a good that we can do our best to make room for?”
It’s not about whether or not abortion should be legal, it’s about what it means to be a woman who has a body that can carry children, what it means to find yourself pregnant, what it means to find something happening in your life that you did not plan, and what it means to honor that gift even if it’s a really difficult gift to honor.
I guess one of the things that I am committed to as a pro-life person, is doing my best to, as a woman and as a friend and politically as well, making it easier for women to experience, even unexpected pregnancies as something that they can say yes to, and as something that they can experience as gifts.
No rainbow without sunshine! The Skye bridge is a new gateway to the isles.
Over the coming weeks, we will be introducing prayers and reflections from Alistair Maclean’s Hebridean Altars, pearls he harvested from the people of the Isles, a hundred years and more ago. This Island Girl’s prayer fits neatly into our sideways look at vocation in the everyday, as well as belonging in this month’s postings.
This day, I say to myself,
is Thy love-gift to me.
White with the purity of Thy mind,
I take it, Lord, from Thy hand,
and, for the wonder of it,
I give Thee thanks.
Make me busy in Thy service
throughout its hours,
yet not so busy that I cannot sing
a happy song.
And may the South wind
blow its tenderness through my heart
so that I may bear myself gently to all.
And may the sunshine of it
pass into my thoughts,
so that each shall be
a picture of Thy thought,
and noble and right.
It’s Mary’s month, I know, and we could have said more about her, so now here is a good, challenging read about motherhood – parenthood, even, but mostly motherhood – and the risks of welcoming a new person into one’s body, home, family. A risk that Mary accepted. This article from The Plough Quarterly, The Risk of Gentleness by Gracy Olmstead, is subtitled: Welcoming the baby I did not want.
But Ms Olmstead found room for her son, and is still adapting and changing to make him welcome.
It is a shock to see the midwife or doctor hold up a freshly birthed baby, red and crying and real. For all our intimate knowing of each other, this is our first encounter as separate individuals. For the newborn, the reality of our separation is sensed through vulnerability, cold, and brightness – unpleasant sensations to be hushed and soothed by a mother’s arms and breasts. For the mother, however, this meeting is the moment in which we say “hello” to the unique human we’ve, by some miracle, sustained inside of us, yet now fully see and know as other …
Like Mary, we must make space: to accept our feebleness and embrace the mystery, knowing that God is good even – and especially – in our weakness and our poverty. Do read the article! Will.
Today is the last but one day of prayer for the environment and our place within it as users and custodians. Find the Bishops’ post here.
In his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given to him, but man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed (6).”
By responding to this charge, entrusted to them by the Creator, men and women can join in bringing about a world of peace. Alongside the ecology of nature, there exists what can be called a ‘human’ ecology, which in turn demands a ‘social’ ecology. All this means that humanity, if it truly desires peace, must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology.
The human person, the heart of peace with all of creation.’
Pope Benedict XVII, 1 January 2007.
Thomas Traherne invites us to live eternal life now through reading the Bible and regarding all of creation with all our faculties, including the imagination, a faculty, he would argue, of the soul.
The contemplation of Eternity maketh the Soul immortal. It can see before and after its existence into endless spaces. O what glorious creatures should we be could we be present in spirit with all Eternity! How wise, would we esteem this presence of the understanding, to be more real than that of our bodies! When my soul is in Eden with our first parents, I myself am there in a blessed manner. When I walk with Enoch*, and see his translation, I am transported with him.
The present age is too little to contain [my soul]. I can visit Noah in his ark, and swim upon the waters of the deluge. I can see Moses with his rod, and the children of Israel passing through the sea; I can enter into Aaron’s Tabernacle, and admire the mysteries of the holy place. I can travel over the Land of Canaan, and see it overflowing with milk and honey; I can visit Solomon in his glory, and go into his temple, and view the sitting of his servants, and admire the magnificence and glory of his kingdom.
No creature but one like unto the Holy Angels can see into all ages. Sure this power was not given in vain, but for some wonderful purpose; worthy of itself to enjoy and fathom. Would men consider what God hath done, they would be ravished in spirit with the glory of His doings. For Heaven and Earth are full of the majesty of His glory. And how happy would men be could they see and enjoy it! But above all these our Saviour’s cross is the throne of delights. That Centre of Eternity, that Tree of Life in the midst of the Paradise of God.
* Enoch ‘walked with God’ and was taken, or translated, into heaven and seen no more on earth, see Genesis 5:21-24.
+ Ark from Shrewsbury Cathedral, Margaret Rope. = The Tree of Life: Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge.
Here is an idea to contemplate: that God willed Creation into being so that God himself had somewhere to be, in the second person of the Trinity, Jesus the Son.
O the nobility of Divine Friendship! Are not all His treasures yours, and yours His? Is not your very Soul and Body His: is not His life and felicity yours; is not His desire yours? Is not His will yours? And if His will be yours, the accomplishment of it is yours, and the end of all is your perfection.
You are infinitely rich as He is: being pleased in everything as He is. And if His will be yours, yours is His. For you will what He willeth, which is to be truly wise and good and holy. And when you delight in the same reasons that moved Him to will, you will know it. He willed the Creation not only that He might Appear but Be: wherein is seated the mystery of the Eternal Generation of His Son. Do you will it as He did, and you shall be glorious as He.
Thomas Traherne is an Easter writer, full of the joys of spring, and of the endlessly searchable Universe. He uses the word ‘world’ to mean the Universe in this passage. What we have learned of the measures of the world since his time only reinforces the wisdom of his reflection. Let us enjoy creation and notice our felicity – our happiness in that enjoyment – and be grateful.
The world is round, and endlessly unsearchable every way.
What astronomer, what mathematician, what philosopher did ever comprehend the measures of the world? The very Earth alone being round and globous, is illimited. It hath neither walls nor precipices, nor bounds, nor borders. A man may lose himself in the midst of nations and kingdoms. And yet it is but a centre compared to the universe. The distance of the sun, the altitude of the stars, the wideness of the heavens on every side passeth the reach of sight, and search of the understanding. And whether it be infinite or no, we cannot tell.
The Eternity of God is so apparent in it, that the wisest of philosophers thought the world eternal. We come into it, leave it, as if it had neither beginning nor ending. Concerning its beauty I need say nothing. No man can turn unto it, but must be ravished with its appearance. Only thus much, since these things are so beautiful, how much more beautiful is the author of them? But the beauty of God is invisible, it is all Wisdom, Goodness, Life and Love, Power, Glory, Blessedness &c. How therefore shall these be expressed in a material world? His wisdom is expressed in manifesting His infinity in such a commodious manner. He hath made a penetrable body in which we may stand, to wit the air, and see the Heavens and the regions of the Earth, at wonderful distances. His goodness is manifest in making that beauty so delightful, and its varieties so profitable. The air to breathe in, the sea for moisture, the earth for fertility, the heavens for influences, the Sun for productions, the stars and trees wherewith it is adorned for innumerable uses. Again His goodness is seen, in the end to which He guideth all this profitableness, in making it serviceable to supply our wants, and delight our senses: to enflame us with His love, and make us amiable before Him, and delighters in His blessedness.
God … hath drowned our understanding in a multitude of wonders: transported us with delights and enriched us with innumerable diversities of joys and pleasures. The very greatness of our felicity convinceth us that there is a God.