Pope Francis’s prayer intention for this month is:
May all those who suffer find their calling in life and allow themselves to be touched by the heart of Jesus.
I invited Christina Chase to share this reflection; Thank you Christina for offering it to Agnellus’ Mirror.Will.
Suffering is something that people complain about far and wide. As a Catholic, however, I have heard people speak about the gift of suffering. Those people look at me, a faithful, joyful, uncomplaining person crippled and crumpled in my wheelchair, and they believe that I have been given this gift by God. I am a believing and practicing Catholic, through and through, but I don’t believe what those well-meaning, goodhearted people seem to believe.
I don’t believe in the gift of suffering.
I believe in the gift of life.
I believe profoundly and unconditionally in the absolute and terribly beautiful gift of life.
Life naturally includes limitations, imperfections, and hardships — life naturally includes suffering. Everyone who has received the gift of life will suffer at one time or another, or even chronically.
But we don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, do we?
Often and often I’d seen her, on the opposite side of the road, making for the little supermarket, walking stick in hand, eyes fixed ten yards in front of her, seemingly intent on the journey rather than the goal. It would not have been appropriate to call out a greeting, and I was not at all sure she would remember me from church.
Today a man was talking to her as I drew abreast, but she seemed to be dismissing him. But no sooner had he gone his way than she seemed to be staggering. I crossed and greeted her by name: ‘Mrs K, you seem to be in difficulty.’ Enough to win her confidence, she took my arm and we made a somewhat erratic progress to the shop. ‘I always get a taxi back.’
No sooner were we through the door than an assistant had scooped her away and into a chair. Mrs K got her shopping list out and the young woman was soon finding her groceries, and no doubt arranged for the taxi to come and take her to her door.
Let us be grateful that shops can still be human-friendly and serve with a smile; thank you Flavia! But I also want to salute the sheer bravery of Mrs K, stepping out on a cold morning, facing the danger of falling or losing the energy to make it to the shop (and then what?)
There are many people living with disability or weakness who nonetheless are witnesses to life and indeed to something beyond earthly life. Keeping going, day after day, can be disheartening, and if there is nothing to look forward to, then why bother?
But, we are Easter People. At the end of John’s Gospel we read how Peter saith to Jesus: Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith to him: So I will have him to remain till I come, what is it to thee? follow thou me. (John 21:20-21)Jesus and Peter were talking about John, the beloved disciple, but his words apply to most of us Christians today: we are called, not to martyrdom, but to remain until he comes, watching like the wise bridesmaids, and to follow him to the wedding feast whenever he calls us.
Zoom calls have quickly become a part of the ‘new normal’, and I’ve even now participated in my first zoom remembrance service.
Pam Dodds was born in Canterbury in 1958 and she came, in 1981, to live at Faith House, the newly-opened L’Arche house in Canterbury. I moved into Faith House at the start of 1989 and in May of that year, there came L’Arche UK’s first ever Korean assistant and the woman who was to become my wife, Yim Soon.
Pam sadly died alone flat on March 22nd, and there were 37 of her friends gathered for the service, some from L’Arche, some from St Thomas’, the Catholic church in Canterbury where Pam was a well-known and well-loved member. Indeed there were about 40 people present as some of the zoom windows had two people in them. How Pam would have been touched by so many people coming together to sing, to pray and to share memories of her. It was lovely to see old faces, all of us brought together by Pam.
When it got to my turn I explained how my bedroom at Faith House had been directly underneath Pam’s and mentioned, rather diplomatically, that I knew well what Pam’s favourite records were. The reality was that Pam would play the same 3 records very loudly: and not just the same 3 records but the same bits of the same 3 records: very loudly! I liked Pam, and I wasn’t really bothered by her ‘feistiness’, and I suppose I must have found a way to cope with the noise coming from above (human beings are very adaptable, which we are finding at the current time of coronavirus).
Pam didn’t find it easy to live with others and in the early 90s she announced that she wanted to leave L’Arche and was supported to move into her own flat. She retreated somewhat into her own (rather troubled) world in the ensuing years and I was delighted when in recent years L’Arche was approached by social services to see if Pam could be given a bit of support again. It was decided that Pam would spend a couple of hours each week with Yim Soon, so Pam came to our house on Tuesday afternoons and she and Yim Soon would drink tea and eat cake and chat and watch a few episodes of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. And Ian, one of those at the service, told of how excited Pam was when she visited him in Yorkshire and he took her to Holmfirth where the show was filmed and how they had tea in ‘Sid’s café’.
Occasionally I would be working from home on a Tuesday and it was special to connect again with Pam and she always asked how my mum was and she always gave me the latest news from her old friends Janet and Maurice. And I would enjoy hearing the raucous chuckles coming from the living-room as Pam watched her favourite sit-com.
Pam counted many Catholic priests amongst her circle of acquaintances, and was in regular correspondence with several bishops. I was once chatting with her outside Canterbury Cathedral following a big ecumenical service and she spotted Derek Warlock, then Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool. Pam grabbed me and pulled me over to introduce me to her old friend Derek! And she was so happy when another old friend Nick Hudson, who had been an assistant priest in Canterbury in the late 80s, was made a bishop.
I ended my sharing about Pam with a favourite memory, also on a clerical theme. My friend Richard arrived at L’Arche as an 18-year-old in April 1989 and was living at Little Ewell, another of the houses of L’Arche Kent. His House Leader Maria sent him over to Faith House one day for a visit. Richard was in the middle of his Goth phase, and so this young guy turned up wearing black jeans, a black shirt, large black winkle-picker boots, hair standing up, and around his neck a huge cross. Pam didn’t always take kindly to new people but she was all over Richard: the reason, it turned out later; she thought he was a priest!
Thank you Pam. Your life was a gift. May God bless you.
Christina has kindly allowed us to use an extract from her book, which we thoroughly recommend; find it on Amazon or through the publisher’s link below. But for now, take a step into her personal desert.
The yearly losses of strength and abilities – lifting up my arms, feeding myself, brushing my own teeth, breathing without labour – these are the hardest things to bear … The circumstances of my life altered my childhood, undermined my teenage years, and rendered me into an adult who is completely dependent upon others for everyday survival. My body has been wracked with the pain of angry weeping, my bones crying out with shuddering grief, and my mind seized with the heartache of my life. And yet …
I am not bitter.
I pine for independence, for a family of my own, and I mourn the physical losses, the sickness, the shortened lifespan. And yet … I am very glad to be here.
Why am I glad? I ask myself. Even I wonder at how I can be the generally content, grateful and joyful person that I am. Over and over I have asked myself why I, cripple that I am, continue to have a deep love for life.
It is not our merits that win us eternal life, but God’s mercy that is greater than all the sins of the world, something even the saintly Brother John needs reminding of in his last illness, which was mentally as well as physically distressing and painful. But the One who was crucified is the resurrection and the life; Brother John’s suffering was the gate to his eternal life.
In his last illness, Brother John dreamt that a devil stood before him with a great scroll, whereon were written all the sins that he had ever done or thought, and said to him: “For these sins that thou hast done in thought, word, and deed, art thou damned to the depths of hell,” And he could not call to mind any good deed that he had ever done, either in the Order or elsewhere, and so he thought that he was damned, even as the devil said.
Wherefore, if any asked him how he fared, he would answer: “I am damned.” Seeing this, the brothers sent for an aged brother called Brother Matthew of Monte Rubbiano, the which was a holy man and a close friend of this Brother John ; and Brother Matthew coming to him on the seventh day of his trouble, saluted him and asked him how he fared. He replied that he fared ill, sith he was damned.
Then quoth Brother Matthew: “Dost thou not remember how thou hast oftentimes confessed thyself to me, and I have wholly absolved thee of all thy sins? Dost thou not remember also that thou hast served God continuously in this holy Order many years? Besides, dost thou not remember that the mercy of God is greater than all the sins of the world, and that the blessed Christ, our Saviour, paid an infinite price for our redemption? Wherefore be of good hope that of a surety thou art saved ”; with these words, since the time of his purification was accomplished, the temptation left him, and he was comforted.
And with great joy Brother John spake unto Brother Matthew : “Since thou art wearied and the hour is late, I pray thee go and rest thyself”; and Brother Matthew was loth to leave him ; but at length, at his much urging, he left him and went to lie down, and Brother John remained alone with a brother that did him service. And behold Christ, the blessed One, came with great splendour and with fragrance of exceeding sweetness, even as He had promised to appear to him a second time when his need was greater, and He healed him thoroughly of all his sickness. Then Brother John with hands clasped gave thanks unto God that he had made so good an end of the Jong journey of this miserable life, coming from this mortal life unto life eternal with Christ, the blessed One, whom he had so long desired and waited to behold.
And the said Brother John rests in the convent of La Penna of Saint John.
Cross by Constantina Wood;
Christ leading Adam and Eve out of Hell, Strasbourg Cathedral
My son, let not them depart from thine eyes: keep sound wisdom and discretion: so shall they be life unto thy soul, and grace to thy neck. Then shalt thou walk in thy way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble.
A couple of days before I wrote this reflection, I allowed wisdom and discretion to depart from mine eyes. I walked out of my way in the season of wet leaves: my foot stumbled, I fell heavily, ‘nearly broke my neck’ as my father used to say, and actually broke my thumb – but I live to tell the tale. The family are threatening me with all sorts of restrictions and personal alarms, in fun, I hope; and Christmas passed without a gift-wrapped personal alarm to my stocking.
But of course, we should keep our eyes open, and see the world through the lenses of wisdom and discretion. The Book of Proverbs is full of advice which we will dip into over the coming months, but here’s another take on wisdom and discretion. The wise and sometimes indiscreet Dominican friar, Herbert McCabe said that, ‘the notion of blind obedience makes no more sense in our tradition than blind learning.’* And is that more of a challenge for the one commanding, or for the one expected to obey?
*Quoted in Timothy Ratcliffe OP, Alive in God, A Christian Imagination, London, Bloomsbury, 2019
Another Advent look at children, showing us adults how to receive the Kingdom of God.
“As to intelligence—a little intelligence is sufficiently dramatic, if it is single. A child doing one thing at a time and doing it completely, produces to the eye a better impression of mental life than one receives from—well, from a lecturer.”
One might add a word on the spontaneous co-operation between children seen on this photograph. ‘It’s only play, not serious’, you may say. But Someone said “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; forof such is the kingdom of God.Assuredly, I say to you,whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child willby no means enter it.” (Mark 10)
Lecturers, teachers, preachers*: beware of self-importance!
from “The Colour of Life; and other essays on things seen and heard”, 1898
In the Book of Job, 22, his friend, Eliphaz the Temanite says:
“Can a man be profitable to God? Surely he who is wise is profitable to himself. Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are in the right, or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless? “
Job’s comforters have a bad press, indeed Blake, who engraved our image calls them ‘tormentors’. But even if it’s the wrong time and place for it, Eliphaz has a point for us, if not for Job! As Rowan Williams puts it in his discussion on William Tyndale:
Any system of religious activity and thinking that tries to give us some leverage over God – I’ve never denied God a moment of my time, I hope he remembers that – such an attitude is poisonous to our faith.
We create religious institutions that are designed to preserve that divine indebtedness to us, and while we are doing that, we largely ignore the concrete forms of indebtedness toward other human beings to which we should be attending.*
ALL IS GIFT!
Accept the gift of your life, accept that it is a gift, be thankful for every breath! God did not have to bring you into being, and if you suffer, remember that so too did Jesus, his Son. Suffering is shared by God.
Alfred Joyce Kilmer put it this way in his Prayer of a Soldier in France:
My shoulders ache beneath my pack
(Lie easier, Cross, upon His back).
Please follow this link to our post from July last year for the whole poem, written shortly before Kilmer’s death in battle. He concludes:
So let me render back again
This millionth of Thy gift. Amen.
The gift is the redemptive suffering of Jesus; allying our suffering to his is to set ourselves in sympathy with Jesus; so if personal suffering is a gift, that is because of how we receive it, endure it, live it: through him, with him and in him. Him being the one who prayed: O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt. (Matthew 26:29)
The title of this post comes from the Book of Common Prayer, and like so much of that manual for English worship, goes back to the early days of the Church.
It was coming up to Christmas and I had a few items of shopping to bring home, including a stalk of Brussels sprouts. We’ll come to that after we’ve visited the local metro shop. I was behind ‘A’ in the queue, whom I’d known since teaching him twenty years ago. As ever, I asked ‘How’s Mother?’ knowing she was ill. ‘She passed away last month; I was going to come and tell you. I haven’t cried yet.’ But the tears were there, I saw them.
In front of him was ‘S’, a widowed neighbour; ‘You know you have two Daily Mails’, said the checkout man. ‘Yes, that’s right’, she answered. I knew that one was for her friend, whose son had recently been killed by a rogue driver, high on drugs.
In front of her was ‘F’, widowed herself this year, but bravely going about her business as a mother and grandmother. We always talk of her family and husband: ‘he was so easy to live with’, she remembered today, and like ‘A’s, her eyes were brimming.
I saw her friend ‘C’s son to wave to, neither of us realising that his mother was to suffer a massive and fatal heart attack an hour or two later.
Then round the corner to the farmers’ market for those sprouts. ‘L’ was there, asking after my family, whom he had taught History. Our conversation was ‘H’, my daughter’s dear friend, who ‘always lit up the classroom’ but she had left us eighteen months before in her mid twenties, with an aggressive cancer.
Time for the Church to speak to the bereaved, whoever they may be: Dying, and, behold, we live; (2 Corinthians 6:9.)
The Passion flower on this grave marker is a promise of resurrection see here.