In centrally heated, 21st Century England it’s easy to forget how comforting a fire can be. Not to mention how much work one can entail. This little 1880s house once had three hearths downstairs – one for the kitchen which was to heat the servant girl’s room above. The other two bedrooms each had a fireplace. Plenty of work hauling all that coal up and ashes down the stairs. No more of that, but we can relax around the woodburning stove, or once a year, by this thermally inefficient open fire.
In 1806 Mary Lamb was writing to her younger friend, Sarah Stoddard, who had a few major family and personal matters to sort out at some distance from London, before Rowland Hill’s Penny Post made letter writing cheap and reliable.
Do write soon: though I write all about myself, I am thinking all the while of you, and I am uneasy at the length of time it seems since I heard from you … and this second winter makes me think how cold, damp, and forlorn your solitary house will feel to you. I would your feet were perched up again on our fender.
The fender is a low barrier between the fireplace and the floor of the room, often at a good height for warming the toes.
This story made me wonder how often the one who came to bring fire to the earth sat around an open fire with his disciples, how much of his more intimate teaching was given that way. I shall have to re-imagine some of the Gospel passages next time they come up.
Mary Lamb to Sarah Stoddard, 14 March 1806, The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, 1796-1820, edited by E. V. Lucas.
O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light, Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger; Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right, To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger: Furnish and deck my soul, that thou mayst have A better lodging then a rack or grave. From Christmas by George Herbert.
George Herbert was an Anglican priest who died in 1633, during the reign of Charles I of England, those were troubled times. This is an extract from his poem, Christmas. That little star we looked for on Sunday is now a glorious, but contracted light, powerful enough to transform a dark soul into a better lodging for Christ – a better lodging than the rack which in Herbert’s time had replaced the Cross as an instrument of torture; a better lodging than the grave that only held Christ until the third day. Christmas and Easter are parts of the same story.
Lord, do not be a stranger to me. Shine your light into my soul. Help me to follow the star this Advent, however many distractions get in the way.
Bill Bryson spent many years living in England, so many that he felt the call to reconnect with his native America, a call he answered by driving across 38 states out of 50. He visited the two Oceans, the mountains, prairies and deserts, until he crossed the border into his home state.A book worth looking out for, an interesting insight into America in its many guises.
It was wonderful to be back to the Midwest, the rolling hills and rich black earth … I passed back into Iowa. As if on cue, the sun emerged from the clouds. A swift band of golden light swept over the fields and made everything instantly warm and springlike. Every farm looked tidy and fruitful. Every little farm looked clean and friendly. I drove on spellbound, unable to get over how striking the landscape was. There was nothing much to it, just rolling fields, but every colour was deep and vivid: the blue sky, the white clouds, the red barns, the chocolate fields. I felt as if I had never seen it before. I had no idea Iowa could be so beautiful.*
Marie Curie said that the present moment is a state of grace, and so it proved for Bill Bryson when the sun came out. But all those moments he documented when his pilgrimage took him through inhospitable landscapes and inhospitable towns, motels and diners, they too were moments of grace – at least when seen in hindsight.
This pilgrim’s progress brought him home. May we be grateful for our holidays and thankful to be able to come home among family and friends. And may we all meet merrily in heaven when our journey is done.
Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent, Travels in Small Town America, New York, HarperCollins, 1989.
Some years again when reflecting the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, I imagined, in my prayer, that I was Zacchaeus in the tree and Jesus stood looking up at me and saying to me “I want to stay at your house”. My reply to him was “I have no home”.
It is true that as a priest I have moved from presbytery to presbytery, from place to place. The last place I called home was when I lived with my Mum and Dad and brothers and sister in Clapham, before I went away to school. I was part of a family. I had a sense of belonging.
Many people in life move many times, because of their job or perhaps they have traveller blood in them and are always on the move.
‘If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him.” The loving Father, Jesus our brother and the Advocate, the Spirit desires to make their home with us. They wish to abide or live in us. Home is a relationship of love. Am I willing and ready to welcome God into my home, that is into my heart.? Am I prepared to allow God to live or abide in me?
We are very familiar with the Holman Hunt’s painting “The Light of the World.” A copy can be seen in St. Paul’s Cathedral. It shows the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door, illustrating Revelation 3:20 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will eat with him, and he with Me”. The door in the painting has no handle, and can therefore be opened only from the inside. Jesus might be persistent in his knocking at the door of our heart but will come in when invited. We need to open the door. Before he returned to the Father, Jesus promised that the disciples would receive the power of the Holy Spirit. This is an ideal time to invite the Father, Son and Spirit into us so that they make a home in us.
You could pray this prayer of St Augustine to the Holy Spirit.
Breathe into me, Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Move in me, Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Attract my heart, Holy Spirit, that I may love only what is holy. Strengthen me, Holy Spirit, that I may defend all that is holy. Protect me, Holy Spirit, that I may be holy.
From Canon Anthony Charlton, St Thomas’, Canterbury.
Hope! You might well think it’s in short supply these days, with climate change and all the storms, with wars and threats of war, and terror and division. We can only do what we can, where we can. The Irish Chaplaincy was established to do what it can, where it is needed in England. Here comes a Hope-full story. As ever, it is told by Eddie Gilmore.
A conversation on a train station platform reminded me of both the power of stories and the power of hope, and it linked as well with a forthcoming campaign of the Irish Chaplaincy.
Francis, who spent his working life as a clinical psychologist in the NHS, told me excitedly that he was reading my book * and I was equally excited to learn that he had bought not just one but three of them (not all for himself)! “I like how you use narrative,” he explained and he recalled how years ago if he had only a short time to get across the details of a ‘case’ with a senior policy-maker he would usually choose to tell a story about the person in question. This was, in his experience, the most effective means by which change might occur.
When I told Francis about our #storiesofhope campaign to be launched in Lent he remarked, “Hope is about the power to make a difference.” Here is the first of those stories of hope. It is Emma’s story, as told by Breda who features strongly in it, and it is told with Emma’s permission.
A Reason to Live
Our wonderful team is currently supporting a 35-year-old woman who in February 2021 just days after her release from prison was airlifted to hospital and put into a medical coma for 28 days. Emma had a rare but serious bacterial infection that affects the tissue beneath the skin and surrounding muscles and organs which resulted in the amputation of her left leg. Her mother was told that her daughter had a 2% chance of survival and was advised to turn off Life Support. She declined! Initially Emma had no use in both arms but this is slowly improving with intensive therapy at a care home; however she struggles with the use of her right leg as it remains severely damaged. Although Emma’s long-term prognosis isn’t yet fully known, what is certain is that she will need lots of care for many months if not years and will have to endure years of skin graft operations.
Thankfully, the team at the Irish Chaplaincy has been able to support both mother and daughter: practically, by advocating on their behalf to statutory bodies; financially, with small donations for telephone credit, travel assistance as well as essential sundries; emotionally, with visits from two of our caseworkers, who are also available at the end of the telephone anytime for either mother or daughter; and spiritually, through prayer. Additionally, with the help of our friends at Caritas, who when they heard Emma’s story provided a mobility scooter, she is now able to get around better, saying, “I feel like I have my legs back.”
Both mother and daughter are extremely remarkable and humbling; truly inspirational and doing their best to stay positive. They are an absolute pleasure to work with and the essence of our Chaplaincy’s purpose. We would be so very grateful for your thoughts and prayers to help them get through this difficult time and to help us continue in the work we love to do in supporting those most in need. Emma said to one of those who came to visit her: “You’ve given me a reason to live.”
The latest chapter in this story is that with the help of the Irish Chaplaincy Emma has managed to secure suitable accommodation where she can live with her mother after her mother is released from an open prison in a few months’ time. Now Emma not only has a reason to live, she also has her own place to live in!
More such stories of hope are coming soon…
* The link is to our review of Eddie’s book, Looking ahead with Hope; Francis was right, it’s a good read!
Pope Francis’s prayer calls on us to welcome and reach out to the exiles who find their way into our community, into our parish. With restrictions lifting, let us be conscious that there are new people among us, people, too, who are tentatively coming back to worship after several months away. Let’s say a word or two to those we meet or end up sitting next to. Francis wrote this prayer before the war began in Ukraine which only increases our need to welcome the stranger among us.
grant the followers of Jesus
and all people of good will,
the grace to do your will on earth.
Bless each act of welcome and outreach
that draws those in exile
into the 'we' of community and of the Church,
so that earth may truly become a common home
for all people.
listening to the dance-music of the tide in the evening.
from “Stray Birds” by Rabindranath Tagore
And very gentle music it was, this winter’s evening in Margate. At the turn of the year, let’s pray that we may enjoy such evenings in this life, with a warm home to return to.
And may He support us all the day long, till the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at the last.
John Henry Cardinal Newman
Apologies that the Tagore’s numbering has got out of sequence.
Festive fires are few and far between these days, but ‘Rouse, rouse the fire, and pile it high, Light up a constellation here’, as Samuel Johnson says. It will soon be Christmas. We have our constellation of fairy lights, now what would he have made of that?
Well, we nor more than Johnson, should not submit to a dreary winter’s tale: it will soon be Christmas! Let’s use each transient hour to restore the spring in our own – or other people’s hearts. It is the time of Joy.
But many are in danger of death in regions where conflict has led to famine, cold, sickness and separation from family and friends. Let us not bar the door of our hearts to them!
Haste, close the window, bar the doors, Fate leaves me Stella, and a friend.
In nature’s aid, let art supply With light and heat my little sphere; Rouse, rouse the fire, and pile it high, Light up a constellation here.
Let musick sound the voice of joy, Or mirth repeat the jocund tale; Let love his wanton wiles employ, And o’er the season wine prevail.
Yet time life’s dreary winter brings, When mirth’s gay tale shall please no more Nor musick charm—though Stella sings; Nor love, nor wine, the spring restore.
Catch, then, Oh! catch the transient hour, Improve each moment as it flies; Life’s a short summer—man a flow’r: He dies—alas! how soon he dies!”
(from The Works of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D., in Nine Volumes.
Fr John McCluskey MHM gave this homily at FISC in December 2015. The call to renew the face of the earth has not grown any the less urgent in that time, so I have kept the topical references.
Today’s readings take us to the heart of what Advent is about: longing and preparing for the coming among us of our Saviour, God coming to save us from our sins and their consequences, to restore peace and right order in our world, balance and integrity to creation.
It’s a familiar theme, but one that surely rings out much more clearly and urgently this Advent, coinciding as it does with the crucial international conference on Climate Change currently meeting in Paris. As we reflect on the readings today we can without difficulty recognise how apt and relevant they are to the discussions and negotiations going on there between all the countries of our world, rich and poor.
We share a common concern about our future and the future of our planet. But that concern is expressed and experienced in quite different ways.
The meeting in Paris is focussing our attention on the drastic measures needed to save ourselves from the disaster that is waiting for us if we continue to create deserts as a consequence of the way we are misusing the resources of our common home.
The Advent readings acknowledge the deserts but hold out the hope and promise of a new creation, or a creation renewed. Isaiah assures us that a time is coming when desert land will be made fertile, wasteland will rejoice, bloom and sing for joy; the blind, deaf, lame and dumb will be healed and strengthened; peace and justice will flourish again (Psalm 84). In a word: our world will become God’s creation again.
What accounts for this difference – the difference between the Hope of Advent and the fear and near despair driving the discussions and negotiations in Paris?
I think today’s Gospel points to the answer, since it clearly shows the difference there is between the way we see our problems and the way Jesus/God sees them.
A crippled man’s friends go to no end of trouble to bring him to Jesus, because they believe he can cure him. Jesus does cure him, but not right away. First he does something they hadn’t expected or even thought about. Seeing their faith, he said to the crippled man, ‘My friend, your sins are forgiven you.’
They received something they hadn’t thought of asking for, because they had a limited view of what they needed, and equally limited expectations. They simply wanted their friend to walk again. Jesus went much further, freeing him from everything that bound him, healing him through and through. Jesus saw sinfulness as much more deep-rooted that sickness.
I think there is a parallel here with our expectations of what will come out of the Paris meeting. We know that much more is needed than what we are asking for.
We need brave decisions, major changes in policy and practice around the world.
But we know also that whatever is decided will be limited, not enough – compromises, steps along the way, and there is a long way still to go.
We know that changes of policy will never of themselves be enough. Something much more radical and demanding is required: a recognition of the sinful, wasteful ways of modern living; and not only recognition but repentance and a real change of heart, and of the values by which we live – a conversion.
It is down to us – as individuals, families, communities – to make the changes in our way of living that anticipate and even go beyond what we expect and hope for from Paris. As the CAFOD slogan has it, ‘Live simply, that we may simply live.’
This means seeing with the eyes of faith what is really wrong, and acting accordingly. As Jesus always said, in response to those who asked for healing: It is your faith that has saved you.
It is that faith that he looks for and responds to in each of us; a faith that may begin by our turning to God for help as we experience some specific need, but that grows into something stronger, deeper; grows into a daily awareness of God’s life-giving, healing presence in our lives and in our world.
In May, Pope Francis promoted this prayer to be said ahead of the World Day for Migrants and Refugees on 26 September 2021. It is a cause close to his heart. Sad to say, an atmosphere of hostility towards migrants and refugees is being fostered in Britain and elsewhere, perhaps tempered a little as we witness the tragedy of Afghanistan. Clearly, Francis sees migration, whatever the individual person’s motivation, as part of our task of making the earth into our common home.
Holy beloved Father,
Your Son Jesus taught us
That there is great rejoicing in heaven
Whenever someone lost is found,
Whenever someone excluded, rejected or discarded
Is gathered into our 'we'
Which thus becomes ever wider.
We ask you to grant the followers of Jesus,
And all people of good will,
The grace to do your will on earth.
Bless each act of welcome and outreach
That draws those in exile
Into the 'we' of community and the church,
So that our Earth may truly become
What you yourself created it to be:
The common home of all our brothers and sisters.