A teenage girl I used to work with was prone to slashing her arms, but soon after conceiving her daughter she told me, ‘I don’t need that now I’ve got my baby.’ Is it oversimplifying matters to say that loving her baby gave her the freedom to be herself, to love herself? From the way she has surmounted major difficulties since then, I would say that the process of maternal service has indeed enabled her to become a more complete human being.
She is not a churchgoer, but she ponders these things in her heart. Her mustard seed faith enables her to deal with her second daughter’s disability and all the operations that will entail. I take comfort from Pope Francis’s reading of the Angelical Doctor:
37. Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that … What counts above all else is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Works of love directed to one’s neighbour are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit: “The foundation of the New Law is in the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is manifested in the faith which works through love”.
My young friend’s unofficial faith works through love: she is not far from the Kingdom of God. That is what Jesus told the Scribe when discussing the two greatest commandments, love of God and love of neighbour.
Jesus also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, at once he starts to reap because the harvest has come’.
(Mk 4:26-29, translation: The New Jerusalem Bible).
Maybe readers of these posts are wondering why I’ve taken such a round-about path to this beautiful parable of the seed growing by itself. It’s because as I pondered that parable this time it became for me like a vine with tendrils reaching in many directions. I found that it reaches back to that bad day Jesus had with the scribes and with his relatives (Mark 3:20-30). This parable has a powerful message for them – and for all those who have wilfully hardened their hearts against Jesus and his teaching. The passage about the seeds’ independent growth affirms, in the face of any suggestion to the contrary, that no amount of human – or demonic – obstruction will ultimately prevent the word of God from fulfilling its divine destiny in the wider world. God’s word will succeed, Jesus teaches in this parable. Oh, we remain free; there will be those who refuse to accept him, and he never uses force, but God’s word will ultimately achieve the end for which it entered the world in Jesus.
But there’s more. Not only does this parable reach back with a strong message for those who opposed Jesus. It also, as we said yesterday, reaches back to add a dimension to the passage from Mark 4: 1-9 about the different types of soil. Let’s think about that.
As I confessed in these posts, the parable of the different kinds of soil leaves me with an uneasy feeling. I am always reminded when I read it that I’m a flawed being, a sinner. I see again that as far as good soil is concerned, I am very a very patchy piece of earth, at best. Clearing out the stones and weeds and brambles will be a work in progress until I die. But, the good news is that I don’t think Jesus means the parable about the soil to be the last word on the subject of seeds and soil and the kingdom. It’s important to remember that no parable encompasses the mystery of the kingdom in its entirety. The different parables are like the different facets of a diamond, each one reflecting the light differently, each one contributing in a unique but partial way to the beauty of the whole. So, to my relief, I realise that the parable about the different kinds of soil actually needs the parable about the seed growing by itself in order to be understood.
And this makes me very happy. The parable about the seed growing by itself is a good one for times when we ourselves are feeling discouraged about our weaknesses and failures and sins. In this parable, the Lord is telling us that the kingdom is not about being perfect – about being good soil twenty-four/seven. In fact, it’s not all about us. It is about him, about his word. And secondly, it’s not about us achieving personal goodness all by ourselves for God, climbing to heaven by our own muscle and effort. Not at all. This parable is about the ‘muscle,’ the intrinsic power, the unstoppability of God’s word within us.
So, take heart. Take heart, too, if you are going through a period of deep loss and grief and it feels as though your heart has become completely barren. This parable is for you, too. The seed of the word has been scattered within you, and now it is doing what it does best: ‘night and day, while we sleep and while we are awake, the seed is sprouting and growing.’ You cannot see what the seed is doing below the surface of that bare, black soil, but Jesus assures us here that God’s life in us is progressing according to the creative and ever-active love of God. God’s seed is all-powerful and, as this parable suggests, not as fussy about soil as we might have feared. It will quietly get on with its growth – how, we do not know, says Jesus. And we don’t have to know. The parable promises, however, that there will come a time when we will discover the green shoots of the kingdom beginning to emerge from within our heart – a sign that even in our own seemingly barren and ever imperfect and weedy life, God’s seed will eventually produce ‘the full grain in the ear. And the harvest will come.’ This is reason to sing with gratitude. God’s life is in us. His seed is so powerful, so tenacious of life, so willing to be itself, so supremely able to be itself, that we needn’t worry.
We began this reflection by looking at some of Jesus’ own human difficulties: the misunderstanding of family and the intense hostility of the scribes. We had a glimpse into his humanity and saw him as a feeling being, searching for those who would sincerely respond to his loving teachings. We saw beautiful parables emerge from a man like us, with emotions capable of being hurt by rejection. And yet, he ends his teaching that day not with a message of despair, and certainly not of anger, but with a message of tenderness and profound encouragement for us. This is what Our Lord is like.
Yesterday we visited L’Arche; today we share a prayer for the people of Ukraine, published by L’Arche Kent. We remember especially the two L’Arche communities there, who with international assistance have been able to help their neighbours with essential supplies.
hear our prayers for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine.
Lord, we ask for peace for those who need peace,
reconciliation for those who need reconciliation
and comfort for all who don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
Lord may your Kingdom come,
and your will be done.
Lord God, we ask for you to be with all
– especially children –
who are suffering as the crisis in Ukraine deteriorates.
Lord, we pray for those who are anxious and fearful.
For those who are bereaved, injured or who have lost their lives.
And for those who have lost loved ones.
Lord hear our prayers.
You can be awestruck by seeing the galaxies, infinite space. You can be awestruck, infinitely delighted, by a newly hatched damselfly. This one I only saw because I was on my knees, preparing to pull up stinging nettles to protect my workmates; how much do we miss day by day?
The Office begins with words from Psalm 51: Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall declare thy praise, but we could equally pray that all our senses be opened to perceive and declare the infinite love of God
From Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations.
The Infinity of God is our enjoyment,
because it is the region and extent of His dominion.
Barely as it comprehends infinite space, it is infinitely delightful;
because it is the room and the place of our treasures,
the repository of joys,
and the dwelling place,
yea the seat and throne, and Kingdom of our souls.
Till we know the universal beauty of God’s Kingdom,
and that all objects in the omnipresence are the treasures of the soul,
to enquire into the sufficiency and extent of its powers is impertinent.
But when we know this,
nothing is more expedient than to consider whether a soul be able to enjoy them.
Which if it be, its powers must extend as far as its objects.
For no object without the sphere of its power,
can be enjoyed by it.
It cannot be so much as perceived, much less enjoyed.
'All objects in the omnipresence are the treasures of the soul': that is a policy statement for Christian life on earth. Omnipresence is God's presence; Traherne once again comes close to Saint Francis here. I read him this way: nothing outside the range of the soul can be enjoyed by the soul, indeed if it is outside the range of the soul, then the soul will be unaware of it.
But if we reflect, or meditate, as Traherne encouraged us yesterday, we will become aware of more and more connections in creation, and aware that our part in Creation is both infinitesimal and infinite, insignificant and important, passing and eternal.
What is it about prayer that we find so hard to grasp? ‘The raising of the heart and mind to God’ is one definition, easy to remember, but insufficient. What about the image coming to me, unbidden, of someone dear? It certainly wasn’t my conscious mind that brought her there, perhaps it was seeing a head of hair like my friend’s … Or what about the walk down town to Mass, neither mind nor heart actively involved; do I only begin to pray after entering the church or is my body praying as it transports the rest of me to Mass, or to work, or to visit somebody? Pauline Jaricot’s body failed her through illness; what did that do for her prayer life?
For many years, Pauline was passionate about many successful charitable ventures. But serious illness at the age of 35 curtailed her ability to work. Such an impact affected her mental health but through prayer and the Eucharist, Pauline discovered a new spiritual fruitfulness. She would build God’s kingdom with prayer and encourage others to join her in this mission.
Let us pray… Our Father. Hail Mary. Glory be… Blessed Pauline Jaricot, pray for us!
To find out more about Pauline Jaricot, visit: missio.org.uk/Pauline
” I bore with thee long weary days and nights, Through many pangs of heart, through many tears; I bore with thee, thy hardness, coldness, slights, For three and thirty years. Who else had dared for thee what I have dared? I plunged the depth most deep from bliss above; I not My flesh, I not My spirit spared: Give thou Me love for love. For thee I thirsted in the daily drouth, For thee I trembled in the nightly frost: Much sweeter thou than honey to My mouth: Why wilt thou still be lost? I bore thee on My shoulders and rejoiced: Men only marked upon My shoulders borne The branding cross; and shouted hungry-voiced, Or wagged their heads in scorn. Thee did nails grave upon My hands, thy name Did thorns for frontlets stamp between Mine eyes: I, Holy One, put on thy guilt and shame; I, God, Priest, Sacrifice. A thief upon My right hand and My left; Six hours alone, athirst, in misery: At length in death one smote My heart and cleft A hiding-place for thee. Nailed to the racking cross, than bed of down More dear, whereon to stretch Myself and sleep: So did I win a kingdom,—share my crown; A harvest,—come and reap. Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti’s reflection challenges her readers to look through Jesus’ eyes and heart, to acknowledge our betrayals and falling short, but to put ourselves in that cleft heart and share his crown, share his harvest.
Original photo of Nablus (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0): Dr. Michael Loadenthal
And you, Bethlehem… are by no means least.
Micah 5:2-5a, 7-8 From you shall come forth … one who is to rule in Israel 1 Peter 2: 21-25 Now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls Luke 12:32-40 Do not be afraid, little flock
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Reflection Today we consider why God chooses to act in and through seemingly insignificant places and people, and what God does with them. These are not new questions – in fact they are the favourite paradoxes of preachers in the Christmas and Epiphany seasons – yet they continue to challenge us. The prophet Micah speaks directly to Bethlehem and predicts its greatness as the home of the shepherd who will defend God’s people.
The First Letter of Peter tells people who have already begun to identify Jesus Christ with the Messiah that he is the shepherd who willingly suffers to save the flock. The Gospel of Luke reassures the ‘little flock’ of Christ’s followers that they need have no fear, because God has promised them the Kingdom.
We receive these messages of consolation, directed to particular people at a particular time, in the context of our own concerns and longing for consolation. They invite us to take part in God’s transformation of inequality, violence and injustice, not to wait passively for these things to happen. They call on us to be politically aware; to be locally ready to make our churches little Bethlehems where Christ can be born in generosity and hospitality; to recognise ourselves as a ‘little flock’, unimportant perhaps in the world’s eyes, but with a value and a vocation in the great mystery of salvation.
Prayer Good Shepherd, the fragmentation of your ‘little flock’ grieves the Holy Spirit. Forgive our weak efforts and slowness in the pursuit of your will.
Go and do (see http://www.ctbi.org.uk/goanddo) Global: Visit Amos Trust to find out more about how to create peace with justice in the Middle East. Local: Plan as churches together to pray for peace in the middle east on the 24th of every month. You can use resources from Christian Aid to aid your prayers. Personal: Bring the fears that keep you in division from other traditions before the Good Shepherd in prayer. Meditate on the words of the Good Shepherd – ‘do not be afraid, little flock.’
Jerusalem is a powerful symbol for Christians because it is “The City of Peace”, where all humanity was saved and redeemed. But today peace is missing from the city. Even prayer in Jerusalem has become subject to political and military measures. Various parties stake their claim to it and disregard others. Jerusalem was the city of kings, indeed the city that Jesus will enter triumphantly, acclaimed as king (Luke 19:28-44). Naturally the Magi expected to find the newborn king revealed by the star in this royal city.
However, the narrative tells us that, rather than being blessed by the birth of the Saviour king, the whole of Jerusalem was in tumult, much as it is today. Today, more than ever, the Middle East needs a heavenly light to accompany the people.
In this context Christians are called to seek the new-born king, the king of gentleness, peace and love. But where is the star that leads the way to him? It is the mission of the Church to be the star that lights the way to Christ who is the light of the world. By word and through action the Christian people are called to light the way so that Christ might be revealed, once again, to the nations. Yet divisions dim the light of Christian witness and obscure the way, preventing others from finding their way to Christ. Conversely, Christians united in their worship of Christ, and opening their treasures in an exchange of gifts, become a sign of the unity that God desires for all of creation.
Another remarkable young woman from these islands, Saint Samthan was an 8th century Irish nun. She was a foster child of King Cridan, who found a suitable husband for her, but she was determined to become a nun. The king decreed, We bestow you in marriage and join you to God, the spouse of your choice. After training under St Cognat in Donegal she started a convent in County Longford.
She sounds rather saner than some of her contemporaries in the religious life. Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich described some of the practices in early Irish monasteries: Fasting, silence, curtailment of sleep, repeated genuflections, prayer for long periods with arms outstretched, and corporal punishment with a leather strap were normal forms of mortification or could be inflicted for breaches of Rule.*
When a monk asked her what was the best attitude for prayer, she answered: “every position – sitting, standing or lying down.”
When another said he wanted to give up study to pray more, she said he would never be able to fix his mind on prayer if he did not study. When a monk said he was going on pilgrimage, she told him: “the kingdom of God can be reached without crossing the sea and God is near all who call on Him.”
St Samthan refused large estates for her convent and lived in poverty with her community and six cows.
I’ve never met a Samthan but I’m sure any Samantha seeking a patron saint could adopt Saint Samthan, a saint with determination!
Tomas O Fiaich, Columbanus in his own Words, Dublin, Veritas, 1990, p17-18.