On his way to Assisi Saint Francis passed through Borgo San Sepolcro, and as he drew nigh unto the walls, the inhabitants of the town and of the villages came forth to meet him, and many of them went before him with boughs of olive in their hands, crying aloud: “Behold the saint! behold the saint!” And, for devotion and the desire which the folk had to touch him, they thronged and pressed upon him; but ever he went on his way with his mind uplifted and rapt in God through contemplation, and, although he was touched and held and plucked at by the people, he knew nothing at all of that which was done or said around him; neither did he perceive that he was passing through that town or through that district.
When he had passed through Borgo and the crowd had returned to their homes, Saint Francis arrived at a house for lepers, a full mile beyond Borgo, and returned to himself, and, as one who had come fro another world, inquired of his companion: “When shall we be near Borgo?” Of a truth his soul, being fixed and rapt in contemplation of heavenly things, had been unconscious of anything earthly, whether of change of place, or of time, or of the people who thronged about him. This occurred many times, as his companions proved by evident experience.
That evening St. Francis reached the Place of the friars of Monte Casale, where a friar was so cruelly sick and so horribly tormented by sickness that his disease seemed rather some affliction and torment of the devil than a natural infirmity; for sometimes he cast himself upon the ground trembling violently and foaming at the mouth; anon all the sinews of his body were contracted, then stretched, then bent, then twisted, and anon his heels were drawn up to the nape of his neck, and he flung himself into the air, and straightway fell flat on his back.
Now, while St. Francis sat at table, he heard from the friars of this friar, so miserably sick and without remedy; and he had compassion on him, and took a piece of bread which he was eating, and, with his holy hands imprinted with the stigmata, made over it the sign of the most holy Cross, and sent it to the sick friar; who, as soon as he had eaten it, was made perfectly whole, and never felt that sickness any more.
If you are just joining this daily reflections blog, I invite you to scroll back two days to find out what we are thinking about. Today, Jesus, in Luke 18: 1-8, gives us his third surprise. He seems to be saying that we must play the role of the feisty widow in relation not to a sinful human being, but in relation to God himself. No wonder St Luke was a bit nervous about this parable. For Jesus is saying to us here, “You’ve got to be like her with God. God’s not trying to make you a victim, but it might feel like that sometimes. And so you’ve just got to stay with it. Keep praying. No matter what happens or doesn’t happen. Just stay with God. Some things take time. God sees the big picture. Don’t give up and don’t switch off with God.” While we’re still taking this in Jesus gives us our fourth surprise.
Here comes Jesus’ curmudgeonly judge-God again. Jesus paints him as someone who can actually be intimidated by us and our persistence. Pace, St Luke. This is not systematic theology, it is a parable – something more like a poem or a song that tells us what it “feels” like, how things “seem” to be in our relationship with God. And the point is important enough for Jesus to take the risk of being misunderstood. He’s saying, with maybe a twitch of a smile, if you stick with God, God will eventually seem to cave in and to say, “Oh, for the love of Mike. This lady will slap me if I don’t give her what she wants. Looks like I’d better do something for her.”
This perhaps becomes clearer when we consider Jesus’ final words. At the end of this passage, Jesus resumes the gravitas that we usually associate with him, but his words seem enigmatic at first, and even self-contradictory:
And the Lord said, ‘You notice what the unjust judge has to say? Now, will not God see justice done to his elect if they keep calling to him day and night even though he still delays to help them? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily. But when the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’
Jesus ends with a very un-playful plea for faith. A superficial reading of this passage might make its final words seem out of place. But we have been trying to go in deep over the last three days, and I think we can begin to see what Jesus is saying. He first says, in effect, that if such an unjust creature as this judge will eventually come round, will not God do so also? Seems clear enough. Yet, then, Jesus returns to the theme of God’s apparent delay, and seems to be trying to say two opposing things at once. In line eight, we are told to expect that God will seem to delay to help us. But immediately following those words, he seems to promise the opposite, that God will ‘see justice done, and done speedily.’ What does he mean?
I think Jesus is handing us a paradox – for this is the only way of describing God’s grace. On one hand, God’s help seems to be forever in coming, as we pray and wait in agony for a specific outcome to our prayer that never arrives. And then, time passes, and if we stay with our prayer and our hope in God, we begin to realize a few things. We see that as we have waited and prayed, we have changed. We see that as we have waited and prayed, other circumstances around us have changed – in ways that are surprising and that we had not asked for. It gradually becomes clear that we have been given the answer to our prayer – an answer that is not what we expected, but that blesses us more deeply than we could have imagined. And then we look back and see that God has, in fact, been answering our prayer all along, invisibly, yet speedily and unwaveringly guiding us to this particular moment when we discover his grace and healing.
‘When the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’ Jesus asks. What kind of faith is that? The widow shows us. It’s faith that, with feisty determination, clings to God as our helper; faith that refuses to take no for an answer. For, God is our helper, Jesus wants us to know in this parable. Just wait and see. That is reason for Jesus to smile, and even play a bit. He invites us to do so, also.
Thank you, Sister Johanna. There is a link between faith and a sense of humour that seems to start from infancy: babies and toddlers often seem to see the ridiculous side of life. And what, after all, is more ridiculous than the idea of the Creator of all becoming a human baby?
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.
Hereford is on the other side of England to Canterbury, near the Welsh border. The city has its own Saint Thomas, Bishop Thomas Cantilupe, who lived a century after Becket. Last year was the 700th anniversary of his canonisation, as well as the 850th anniversary of Becket’s murder, the 900th anniversary of his birth and 800th anniversary of his translation, as we saw on Wednesday.
This article from Canterbury Cathedral concerns an ancient reliquary of Saint Thomas Becket belonging to Hereford which was rescued by a Catholic family at the Reformation and eventually restored to its proper home in the Anglican Cathedral.
Herefordshire was the mission served for 50 years by the Catholic Reformation Martyr, John Kemble, who worked for many years unmolested, until he was wrongfully accused of involvement in a papist plot to kill King Charles II. He was hanged in 1679. Thank God that today we can celebrate together our saints and martyrs, whatever branch of Christianity they may have sprung from.
In 1120, Thomas Becket was born in London; in 1170, he was murdered in his Cathedral. By the time his remains were translated (moved) to a new shrine in the cathedral, Canterbury had become a major pilgrimage destination and a place of healing. Perhaps relatively few of the healings recorded by the Benedictine custodians would be recognised as miracles today but those who were healed, whether by divine intervention or the workings of human psychology – mind over matter, if you will – went home rejoicing. Even King Henry II, whose tempestuous outburst spurred the four knights to confront and kill the Archbishop, came as a penitent pilgrim.
But in 1538 another king was angry. Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Catharine of Aragon, who had borne a daughter but no son. Unable to attack militarily the Pope who had refused the divorce, he divorced the Church of England from the Catholic church. Thomas, the low-born bishop who had stood up to the king was now, not a martyred saint but a traitor, whose name was to be forgotten, written out of history, even out of prayer books.
A reminder of one of our English Saints, one who should not be forgotten, a model bishop.
To Chichester belongs a Sussex saint, Saint Richard, Bishop of Chichester in the thirteenth century, and a great man.
In 1245 he found the Sussex see an Augæan stable; but he was equal to the labour of cleansing it. He deprived the corrupt clergy of their benefices with an unhesitating hand, and upon their successors and those that remained he imposed laws of comeliness and simplicity. His reforms were many and various: he restored hospitality to its high place among the duties of rectors; he punished absentees; he excommunicated usurers; while (a revolutionist indeed!) priests who spoke indistinctly or at too great a pace were suspended. Also, I doubt not, he was hostile to locked churches. Furthermore, he advocated the Crusades like another Peter the Hermit.
Richard’s own life was exquisitely thoughtful and simple. An anecdote of his brother, who assisted him in the practical administration of the diocese, helps us to this side of his character. “You give away more than your income,” remarked this almoner-brother one day. “Then sell my silver,” said Richard, “it will never do for me to drink out of silver cups while our Lord is suffering in His poor. Our father drank heartily out of common crockery, and so can I. Sell the plate.”
Richard penetrated on foot to the uttermost corners of his diocese to see that all was well. He took no holiday, but would often stay for a while at Tarring, near Worthing, with Simon, the parish priest and his great friend. Tradition would have Richard the planter of the first of the Tarring figs, and indeed, to my mind, he is more welcome to that honour than Saint Thomas à Becket, who competes for the credit—being more a Sussex man. In his will Richard left to Sir Simon de Terring his best riding horse and a commentary on the Psalms.
The Bishop died in 1253 and he was at once canonised. To visit his grave in the nave of Chichester Cathedral (it is now in the south transept) was a sure means to recovery from illness, and it quickly became a place of pilgrimage. Very pleasant must have been the observance of Richard’s day in the Chichester streets. In 1297 we find Edward I. giving Lovel the harper 6s. 6d. for singing the Saint’s praises; but Henry VIII. was to change all this. On December 14th, 1538, it being, I imagine, a fine day, the Defender of the Faith signed a paper ordering Sir William Goring and William Ernely, his Commissioners, to repair to Chichester Cathedral and remove “the bones, shrine, &c., of a certain Bishop —— which they call S. Richard,” to the Tower of London. That the Commissioners did their work we know from their account for the same, which came to £40.
from Highways and Byways in Sussex by E. V. Lucas, 2nd edition 1921.
Lichfield Cathedral was the first in England to welcome a Covid Vaccination centre. The city was the birthplace of Dr Samuel Johnson, the 18th Century philosopher.
The Dean, the Very Rev’d Adrian Dorber, remarked: “Lichfield Cathedral has a long history, dating back to its mediaeval beginnings, of being a space of welcome and healing for the community. We pray every day for our nation and community, especially for healing the sick and protecting the vulnerable. It’s only right we offer the cathedral as a practical means for those prayers to be answered.”
Why all these arguments? Worthiness cannot be earned merely by disputing about it. And I am unworthy, unworthy, unworthy.
What if I am unworthy? The true value of love is this, that it can ever bless the unworthy with its own prodigality. For the worthy there are many rewards on God’s earth, but God has specially reserved love for the unworthy.
from “The Home and the World” by Rabindranath Tagore.
It is good to take note of when different traditions come close to Christianity. We Catholics at Mass use the prayer of the Roman Centurion: I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ Matthew 8:8.
Specially reserved love for the centurion was his son’s healing. But what good things have I received this day that I did not deserve? All is gift.
May we show forth God’s love to our neighbours this Christmas time, however fearful, resentful, or depressed they may be. Christmas is not just for good children, but for unworthy children – and unworthy adults.
Yesterday we were looking at the feeding of the five thousand. If you weren’t here, perhaps it would be a good idea if you scrolled back to it. I would like to take a different tack now, and look at the miracle from the angle of its healing effect on Jesus’ disciples. I had been unable to get them out of my head yesterday in my lectio of this passage. Neither had Jesus, it would seem.
As we saw in yesterday’s post, the disciples had been left in a state of miserable suspension the whole day. News of John the Baptist’s execution had made them deeply sad, and it also would have made them feel the bite of fear. Would this kind of thing happen to Jesus? To them? The needy crowd had seemingly absorbed all of Jesus’ attention and energy, just when the disciples needed him most. Or so it might have seemed to the Twelve.
But Jesus does eventually give the disciples the reassurance they need. He does not forget them. He includes them most wonderfully in this miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. How? First, Jesus takes the disciples’ insufficiency (five loaves, two fish, and no joy) and turns it into a joyful feast of such lavish proportions that the leftovers alone could have fed a small village. And this stupendous feat is performed right under the disciples’ noses: they have front-row seats, and are able to see this miracle, and behold its wonder close-up. What could be more healing?
Then, in obedience to Jesus, they distribute the food. They’re the ones who receive everybody’s thanks, therefore, and they were probably given the credit for the meal being delicious and plentiful. What must this have been like for the disciples? Their wonder as the food kept coming: enough, and more than enough for five thousand, not even counting women and children? Did they begin to weep as they kept reaching into the basket of bread that never emptied? Did they laugh? Become giddy? Exchange stunned glances with each other across the crowds, as it gradually dawned on the Twelve that they were in the middle of a mind-boggling miracle? In any case, they were taken by surprise, once again, by Jesus, and in the process, healed of their grief as their joy in the miracle builds; they are strengthened physically and emotionally, and released from their fear by witnessing this manifestation of Jesus’ prodigious compassion and power. I imagine that they were never the same after this miracle.
And now I’m able to look at the question of what this says to me about the Lord’s work in my life. As my thoughts have moved more fully into the events recounted here by Matthew, I’ve become aware of the fact that Jesus heals his disciples ‘obliquely,’ in this instance. They don’t actually sit down with Jesus in a quiet and lonely place as they had all planned, and talk and cry and do whatever else they wanted to do to express their grief over John the Baptist’s death. Jesus had wanted this for them; there is nothing wrong with it. But circumstances took their course, and did not allow it. Jesus will not forget them, though: he remains concerned about them, and ultimately reaches their grief in a surprising way, by involving them in his miraculous work of feeding people.
When I think of this in relation to my life-experience, this story speaks of the healing power of the Eucharist in my life. Life does not always provide an opportunity for emotional healing that addresses my wounds in the way I had planned – if I even had any plans. But just as Jesus did not forget his disciples that day, Jesus does not forget me. He is present in the Eucharistic meal, and through it, has dealt compassionately with the wounds and the grief I have carried at different stages in my life. Through the Eucharist, and through my full experience of being part of the community of the Church formed by the Eucharist, Jesus has been transforming my insufficiency into something capable of providing a joyful meal. This is ongoing, but it is a joy that can still take me by surprise, because it usually comes from a direction I do not expect. But the joy is real, and will deepen as I acknowledge it and allow the deep wonder of it to well up like a spring in my heart.
Sister Johanna is back! With Advent just around the corner, we find Jesus and the disciples looking for peace and quiet to absorb the news about the prophet of Advent, John the Baptist.
Jesus and the disciples withdrew by boat to a lonely place…. But the crowds heard and went after him on foot. So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them and healed their sick (Mt.14:13f.).
Jesus and the disciples are taken by surprise here – several surprises. The first surprise is a shattering piece of news: they had just heard of the death of John the Baptist – that’s why they wanted to go off by themselves. It’s easy to forget that Jesus and his disciples were like us, and the death of Jesus’ cousin John, who had been a profound spiritual force in their lives, was as traumatic for them as such a thing would be to us. Jesus knew that they all needed some space in order to come to terms with their grief – to some extent anyway. So Jesus organises a boat, and they go by sea to what they hoped would be a place of solitude. They needed to talk about John together, to weep, to pray.
But no solitude was given. Second surprise: a large crowd met them as they got out of the boat. Jesus was grief-stricken, but he saw the faith-filled, needy crowd, and was filled with pity. It’s possible, in fact, that their great faith strengthened Jesus, and enabled him to heal their sick. As I read this, however, I found myself thinking about the disciples, rather than the miraculous healing of the crowd. The disciples don’t seem able to draw energy from the crowd. What happens to them? The text doesn’t say, but during the time when Jesus is healing the crowd, the disciples seem to have disappeared. They are still overwhelmed by grief, surely; I imagine them creeping away, out of sight of all the people who are focused on Jesus. They try to watch the action from a safe distance maybe. As I read on, I realise that Jesus also remembers his disciples, even while he is taken up with the needs of the crowd. He knows that his sorrowing disciples need healing, too.
At length, a further situation develops. Evening comes. Those whom Jesus had healed need to eat. The disciples materialise now, finally, and suggest that Jesus draw the event to a close so that they can all find some food somewhere. Jesus has a different idea. ‘There is no need for the people to go,’ Jesus tells the disciples. ‘Give them something to eat yourselves.’ They must have groaned inwardly at Jesus’ words, and wondered what madness had possessed him. They only had the provisions they had brought with them: five loaves and two fish – barely enough for their own meal. There are over five thousand people to feed. Jesus, always good at registering unspoken words, reads the disciples’ stunned and tired faces and doesn’t even try to dialogue further with them, in Matthew’s account. Jesus simply tells the disciples to bring him their food. Jesus himself instructs the people to sit down on the grass. Then, quietly blessing the food and breaking the five loaves, he gives the bread and fish to the disciples to distribute to the five-thousand-plus people. We know how this story ends. Everybody eats – and well. Third surprise for them.
Why does Jesus do this? The people could probably have managed to get home without expiring, picking up some food as they went through different villages on the way. This miracle of feeding doesn’t seem to be one that addressed a desperate need, as did the physical healings Jesus had performed for them earlier in that day. But Jesus has a message here. He seems to be saying: “I do not fulfil only the minimum requirements of a needy situation, and I do not address only the most obvious and most desperate troubles of my people. I am willing to do more – so much more than you have asked or think you need. Or rather, I show you that you need more than you think. The healing that you sought from me is not complete without the food that I alone can give you.” That was perhaps Jesus’ primary message, and it was addressed both to the crowd and to the disciples. And now to us. But something more was involved here for the disciples. I would like to explore this tomorrow in a second reflection on this story.