Tag Archives: life

September 12, 1775: A most pleasing effect on my mind. Season of Creation XIV.

An Island ferry docked at Mallaig.

Two Hundred and forty six years ago, Dr Johnson and James Boswell were on the Isle of Raasay in the Hebrides, making for Skye and thence for home. No regular Calmac ferry then! Indeed they had waited in the islands for clement weather to allow the rowing boats to set out. Now the conversation grew serious; can one die contented? Johnson’s answer is comprehensive, and reminds me of the old catechism answer: God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next. We rely on his mercy for the latter.

More of Boswell’s idiosyncratick spelling!

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12. It was a beautiful day, and although we did not approve of travelling on Sunday, we resolved to set out, as we were in an island from whence one must take occasion as it serves. Macleod and Talisker sailed in a boat of Rasay’s for Sconser, to take the shortest way to Dunvegan. M’Cruslick went with them to Sconser, from whence he was to go to Slate, and so to the main land. We were resolved to pay a visit at Kingsburgh, and see the celebrated Miss Flora Macdonald, who is married to the present Mr. Macdonald of Kingsburgh; so took that road, though not so near.

All the family, but Lady Rasay, walked down to the shore to see us depart. Rasay himself went with us in a large boat, with eight oars, built in his island; as did Mr. Malcolm M’Cleod, Mr. Donald M’Queen, Dr. Macleod, and some others. We had a most pleasant sail between Rasay and Sky; and passed by a cave, where Martin says fowls were caught by lighting fire in the mouth of it. Malcolm remembers this. But it is not now practised, as few fowls come into it.

We spoke of Death. Dr. Johnson on this subject observed, that the boastings of some men, as to dying easily, were idle talk, proceeding from partial views. I mentioned Hawthornden’s Cypress-grove, where it is said that the world is a mere show; and that it is unreasonable for a man to wish to continue in the show-room, after he has seen it. Let him go cheerfully out, and give place to other spectators.

JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, if he is sure he is to be well, after he goes out of it. But if he is to grow blind after he goes out of the show-room, and never to see any thing again; or if he does not know whither he is to go next, a man will not go cheerfully out of a show-room. No wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to go into a state of punishment. Nay, no wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to fall into annihilation: for however unhappy any man’s existence may be, he yet would rather have it, than not exist at all. No; there is no rational principle by which a man can die contented, but a trust in the mercy of GOD, through the merits of Jesus Christ.’

This short sermon, delivered with an earnest tone, in a boat upon the sea, which was perfectly calm, on a day appropriated to religious worship, while every one listened with an air of satisfaction, had a most pleasing effect upon my mind.

From “Life of Johnson, Vol 5 Tour to the Hebrides (1773)” by James Boswell.

Keeley Psalms devotions_30
Follow this link for Sister Johanna’s Psalm reflection for today, again bearing out CS Lewis and Thomas Merton:

‘In the psalms we have theology expressed poetically.’ 

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23 August: Faith in the 18th Century towns.

Manchester’s Collegiate Church became its Cathedral in 1847.

In this post from the John Rylands Library in Manchester Kate Gibson uses letters from the Nicholson family to demonstrate that religious faith did not die out in the mushrooming industrial towns of Britain.

Her project, Faith in the Town: Lay Religion, Urbanisation and Industrialisation in England, 1740-1830, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is looking at the letters and diaries of ordinary people living in the towns of Northern England, for evidence of the place of faith in their daily lives. Unlike many histories of secularisation which focus on formal church organisations and their records, we argue that looking at the everyday practices of faith, and its relationship with how people thought about their family lives, their identities, their work and their use of urban and domestic space, provides a more vibrant picture of the continued importance of religion in this period. This is a history of faith from the bottom up, not the top down.

Faith in the Town has many interesting posts that may challenge us today, when our church communities have been in enforced hibernation. What can we and our buildings offer by way of space to be quiet and simple, welcoming, common worship for members and non-members alike?

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14 August: Things that have changed my life II.

The second half of the teenagers’ reflections on things that changed their lives. I have avoided analysing their contributions or sermonising on them; I hope each reader can do so for themselves. I do remember that when I pinned up copies of these thoughts on the classroom display boards they were pleased, far more so than I had expected. Clearly these events DID change their lives.

Let us be aware in our dealings with young people, that we can change their lives for good or ill. For the most part, power lives with adults: let us pray for wisdom to use it well.

When my parents got a divorce and I was fostered for a year.

When I got my dog, because I have always wanted a dog.

My brother leaving home. I had to get used to being without him, and I don’ have anybody to help me with my homework.(This was written by a girl.)

Parents treating me differently as I got older, and getting more protective because I am a girl.

My mum getting married again because we had another person to tell us what to do and where to go and when to do it.

My little brother was born when I was ten.

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12 August: A friendly process of detachment

This passage from A Christmas Sermon by Robert Louis Stevenson was written in 1888, when he was convalescing in the Adirondack mountains. We’ve put it here because it is his honest look at himself when he was aware of his own fragility, and it follows on from the honest answer given by the trapper in yesterday’s reflection.

To look back upon the past year, and see how little we have striven and to what small purpose: and how often we have been cowardly and hung back, or temerarious and rushed unwisely in; and how every day and all day long we have transgressed the law of kindness;—it may seem a paradox, but in the bitterness of these discoveries, a certain consolation resides.

Life is not designed to minister to a man’s vanity. He goes upon his long business most of the time with a hanging head, and all the time like a blind child. Full of rewards and pleasures as it is—so that to see the day break or the moon rise, or to meet a friend, or to hear the dinner-call when he is hungry, fills him with surprising joys—this world is yet for him no abiding city. Friendships fall through, health fails, weariness assails him; year after year, he must thumb the hardly varying record of his own weakness and folly. It is a friendly process of detachment.

When the time comes that he should go, there need be few illusions left about himself. Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, failed much:—surely that may be his epitaph, of which he need not be ashamed. Nor will he complain at the summons which calls a defeated soldier from the field: defeated, ay, if he were Paul or Marcus Aurelius!—but if there is still one inch of fight in his old spirit, undishonoured.

The faith which sustained him in his life-long blindness and life-long disappointment will scarce even be required in this last formality of laying down his arms. Give him a march with his old bones; there, out of the glorious sun-coloured earth, out of the day and the dust and the ecstasy—there goes another Faithful Failure!

Robert Louis Stevenson, Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh, by Kim Traynorvia Wikipedia

From A Christmas Sermon by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1888

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13 July: Traherne XLV, Visited with heavenly influences.

Having once studied these principles you are eternally to practise them. 
You are to warm yourselves at these fires, 
and to have recourse to them every day. 
When you think not of these things you are in the dark. 
And if you would walk in the light of them, 
you must frequently meditate. 

These principles are like seed in the ground, 
they must continually be visited with heavenly influences, 
or else your life will be a barren field.

The principles Traherne was putting before us (see post of 6 July) are: ‘This life is the most precious season in all Eternity, because all Eternity dependeth on it.’ I repeat the prayer from that post.

Lord, help me to see this life as a part of eternity,
strangely and stupendously blessed
in its place and season.

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22 June: Of a Piece

The brick-built Roper chapel at St Dunstan’s, Canterbury. Here Margaret Roper brought the head of her father, Saint Thomas More, which she rescued from London Bridge where it was impaled after his execution.

Here’s something to ponder on, today being the feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, two martyrs with Kentish connections: Cardinal Fisher, bishop of Rochester and More, chancellor of England, both fell foul of Henry VIII. The post is taken from a footnote to The Life of Johnson, Volume 5 by James Boswell.

Addison says:—’The end of a man’s life is often compared to the winding up of a well-written play, where the principal persons still act in character, whatever the fate is which they undergo…. That innocent mirth which had been so conspicuous in Sir Thomas More’s life did not forsake him to the last. His death was of a piece with his life. There was nothing in it new, forced, or affected.’ *

Young thought, or at least, wrote differently.

‘A death-bed’s a detector of the heart.
Here tired dissimulation drops her mask.’+

More’s innocent mirth was able to bubble up at his execution in large part because he had been able to prepare himself for this moment, and to approach it fully conscious.

On the other hand, a deathbed may be a scene of agitation for the patient and distressing for witnesses because physical decay impacts upon thought processes and muscular self control. Scenes at the end of life do not necessarily reflect the true state of the principal character; those who lived with the dying person should and will remember many precious, shared moments. And it is to be hoped that the right medical care will make the patient as comfortable as possible, so that they can approach death with serenity.

But let us pray for the grace to be ready to die at any moment, accepting that we will always leave behind plenty of unfinished business.

* The Spectator, No. 349;
+ Night Thoughts, ii. 

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18 June: Today this is my vocation V, Getting old with good Pope John

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is john-xxiii.jpg
Good Pope John XXIII

In March 1945, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli was sent from Istanbul to become the new Papal Nuncio or Ambassador to France, a country on its knees after years of occupation. A heavy and unexpected responsibility. A few years later, on the death of Pius XII, he would be elected as Pope John XXIII. This reflection is from his Spiritual Journal.

I must not disguise from myself the truth: I am definitely approaching old age. My mind resents this and almost rebels, for I still feel so young, eager, agile and alert.But one look in my mirror disillusions me. This is the season of maturity; I must do more and better, reflecting that perhaps the time still granted to me for living is brief, and that I am drawing near to the gates of eternity. This caused Hezekiah to turn to the wall and weep. (2 Kings 20:2) I do not weep.

No, I do not weep, and I do not even desire to live my life over again, so as to do better. I entrust to the Lord’s mercy whatever I have done, badly or less than well, and I look to the future, brief or long as it may be here below, because I want to make it holy and a source of holiness for others.

 John XXIII (1965), Journal of a Soul, London, Geoffrey Chapman, p264

‘Leave it in the hands of the Lord’ is a good motto at any age, so long as you have something to leave there. Maybe the older we get, the more aware we are of our shortcomings and the wilted state of our offerings. We lose the spontaneity of the toddler who gives mother a daisy flower, just picked with no stem but accompanied by a beatific smile. He knows she will accept his gift; the old man can see the imperfection in both gift and giver, yet he gives back to the one who gives all.

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8 June: A little longer.

In old age Johnson observed: I hope GOD will yet grant me a little longer life, and make me less unfit to appear before him.

Life of Johnson by James Boswell.

Amen to both these prayers!

When Johnson visited Skye in the late XVIII Century, the crossing from the mainland was by boat – rowing boat – the bridge would have been unimaginable. The rain, and the rainbow, were facts of everyday life. And still are.

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13 May: Ascension Day

A cloud hid him from their sight

A homily by Austin McCormack OFM

Historically it was an event within the life of Jesus and the early church and is now a feast-day for Christians, one that links Easter to Pentecost. But it is more than an historical event, it is at the same time an insight into life that we need to understand to better sort out the paradoxical interplay between life and death, presence and absence, love and loss.

The Ascension names and highlights a paradox that lies deep at the centre of life, namely, that we all reach a point in life where we can only give our presence more deeply by going away so that others can receive the full blessing of our spirits.

When Jesus was preparing to leave this earth he kept repeating the words: “It is better for you that I go away! You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. If I don’t go away you will be unable to receive my spirit. Don’t cling to me, I must ascend.”

Why is it better?

Any parent has heard similar words from their children, unspoken perhaps but there nonetheless. When young people leave home to go to college or to begin life on their own, what they are really saying to their parents is: “Mom and dad, it is better that I go away. You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. If I don’t go, I will always be your little boy or little girl but I will be unable to give you my life as an adult. So please don’t cling to the child you once had or you will never be able to receive my adulthood. I need to go away now so that our love can come to full bloom.”

To remain present to someone we love we have to sometimes be absent, in ways big and small. The pain in this kind of letting go is often excruciating, as parents know, but to refuse to do that is to truncate life.

The same is true for the mystery of death. For example: I was 22 years old when my mother, died. The pain was searing. Initially we were nearly overwhelmed with a sense of being of losing a vital life-connection (that, ironically, we had mostly taken for granted until then). And our feelings were mainly cold, there’s little that’s warm in death.

But time is a great healer. After a while, and for me this took several years, the coldness disappeared and her death was no longer externally painful. I felt again her presence, and now as a warm, nurturing spirit that was with me all time. The coldness of death turned into a warmth. She had gone away but now could give me love and blessing in new way.

The mystery of love and intimacy contains that paradox: To remain present to someone we love we have to sometimes be absent, in ways big and small. In the paradox of love, we can only fully bless each other when we go away. That is why most of us only “get” the blessing our loved ones were for us after they die.

And this is even true, perhaps particularly so, in cases where our loved ones were difficult characters who struggled for peace or to bless anyone in this life. Death washes clean and releases the spirit and, even in the case of people who struggled to love, we can after their deaths receive their blessing in ways we never could while they were alive. Like Jesus, they could only give us their real presence by going away.

“It is better for you that I go away!”  These are painful words most of the time, from a young child leaving her mother for a day to go to school, to the man leaving his family for a week to go on a business trip, to the young man moving out of his family’s house to begin life on his own, to a loved one saying goodbye in death. Separation hurts, goodbyes bring painful tears, and death of every kind wrenches the heart.

But that is part of the mystery of love. Eventually we all reach a point where what is best for everyone is that we go away so that we can give our spirit. The gift that our lives are can only be fully received after we ascend.

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30 April: Make me wise, Traherne XL.

Traherne is addressing Christ directly in this passage, acknowledging and rejoicing in his closeness to Christ, accepting that suffering unites Men – he of course means men and women – and Christ, now suffering on the cross for me.

What shall I do for Thee, O Thou preserver of Men?

Live, Love, and Admire; and learn to become such unto Thee as Thou unto me. O Glorious Soul; whose comprehensive
understanding at once contains all Kingdoms and Ages! O Glorious Mind! Whose love extendeth to all creatures! O miraculous and eternal Godhead, now suffering on the cross for me: As Abraham saw thy Day and was glad, so didst Thou see me and this Day from all Eternity, and seeing me wast Gracious and Compassionate towards me. (All transient things are permanent in God.) Thou settest me before Thy face forever. O let me this day see Thee, and be united to Thee in Thy Holy Sufferings. Let me learn, O God, such lessons from Thee, as may make me wise, and blessed as an Angel of GOD!

First Century 62.

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