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.
Phil Klay is a young American war veteran. His 2020 novel Missionaries was selected by former president Barack Obama last December as one of his “favorite books of 2020” and was named one of the “The 10 Best Books of 2020” by the Wall Street Journal.
In the address Klay delivered upon receiving the Hunt Prize in 2018, he elaborated on the connection between the violence of the world around us and the life of faith. “Paul tells us ‘the Kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.’ And, at times, I think I can feel that power around me. Catholicism is not, or should not be, a religion of force. Not of hard mechanical rules, but of stories and paradoxes and enigmatic parables.
It is an invitation to mystery, not mastery, to communion, not control. It is a religion that fits with what I know of reality, that helps me live honestly, and that helps me set aside my dreams of a less atavistic world in which men follow rational orders and never rebel. Perfect obedience, after all, comes not from men, but machines. Fantasies of control are fantasies of ruling over the dead. And my tortured God is not a God of death, but of new life.
This post is abridged and adapted from an article in America magazine October 2021. Follow the link to read it all. ‘My tortured God is not a God of death, but of new life’: Christmas is part of that paradox.
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)
Knowing myself beloved
and so glorified of God Almighty in another world,
I ought to honour Him in this always, and to aspire to it.
At midnight will I rise to give thanks unto Thee
because of Thy righteous judgements.
Seven times a day will I praise Thee,
for Thy glorious mercy.
Early in the morning will I bless Thee,
I will triumph in Thy works,
I will delight in Thy law day and night;
at evening will I praise Thee.
I will ever be speaking of Thy marvellous acts,
I will tell of Thy greatness,
and talk of the glorious majesty of Thy excellent Kingdom;
these things ought ever to breathe in our souls.
“Knowing myself beloved” – how many of us would dare to start writing with such a bold statement? Knowing implies more than just holding an opinion, or feeling optimistic of getting to heaven to be glorified in that other world. It’s a knowledge that transcends how Traherne feels. He may be tired, hurt or ill, but he will praise God regardless of how he himself feels today. He may feel quite different tomorrow but that does not alter God’s greatness, nor his glory, nor his kindness to humans.
Traherne used the Psalms in composing this reflection. They form the basis of the Church’s seven prayers a day, which can be found free on-line at universalis.com for anyone wishing to pray them.
(Apologies that this reflection has fallen out of sequence. Sometimes a more topical piece turns up and things get moved around.)