Following on from my contemplation of the fiery stars I am on a roll with the theme of fire. The fire of the Holy Spirit, the fire of God’s unconditional love, the fiery power of Christ’s love for us. We can experience this fire in joy: when we are filled with awe and wonder at the beauty of the day; the sky; of nature; of laughing children; smiling people; an act of lovingkindness; through another’s humility and gentleness. Through so many things, yet they are in themselves outward forms, an exercise or practice of experiencing joy via the perception of our senses.
The joy in the prayer above is one of complete consuming attention and focus upon the love of Christ to the exclusion of all else. Immersion in Christ is like being in the fiery furnace where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were condemned by King Nebuchadnezzar, and who were not consumed by the fire being protected and sheltered by a fourth figure. We can only guess at who this fourth figure may have been but the fire of our faith combined with the fire of Christ’s love is a mind-blowing experience. Dare we allow ourselves to be so consumed? The mystics and saints were marked with such willing natures and as a result became extraordinary examples for us to follow…….
……Grant that we may be ready
to die for love of your love,
as you died for love of our love. Amen
Much is written about St Brendan (whose day it is today) and his epic voyages across the seas to bring the Gospel to others. There is even a myth he may have reached South America. However, I wanted to write about another saint who is lesser known and whose day this is also. John Stone lived at the time of the Reformation which has become an interest of mine due to a series of novels by the historian C J Sansom. The books are about a hunchbacked lawyer called Matthew Shardlake and his adventures during tremendously unstable times for religious thinking and belief in King Henry VIII’s reign.
John Stone was a Doctor of Theology from Canterbury who opposed the King’s wish to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon. During the dissolution of the monasteries all religious were expected to sign a document which acknowledged the King as the Head of the church in England – The Act of Supremacy. John Stone refused to sign and was carted off to the Tower where, C J Sansom tells us, torture was inflicted on the prisoners. It was a brutal and grisly time – has the world improved, I wonder? John was returned to Canterbury to be tried. He was found guilty under the Treason’s Act and hung, drawn and quartered, his head and body being left on display for being a traitor.
Sansom’s novels show us the profits and land deals that were made on the back of the sale of religious houses and properties. Of course, the full truth was riddled with complexities and the changing whims of King Henry, yet those who do not follow the tenets of more dictatorial leaders, even in our times, are subject to persecution. Men of principle, such as John Stone, however, shine forth. I do recommend Mr Sansom’s books but beware, once you read one, you will want to read them all. What shall I do when I reach the end of his final book in the series? Sob!
Monday of Week 5
Jesus allows people afflicted by sickness to touch Him, even lepers, who are shunned because of the fear of contagion. He shares His company and teaching with those whose sins make them social outcasts. ‘It is not the healthy who need the doctor’, he says ‘but the sick’(Mark 2:17).
For Jesus, sin is a form of sickness. It moves His heart to be with the afflicted person, to reach out with acceptance, forgiveness and healing wisdom. Whether the sick respond to the doctor with co-operation or hostility, this does not affect Jesus’ commitment to be among those who need him.
Although He could have hidden or run away from those who wanted to kill Him, Jesus instead ‘set His face towards Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:51). His teaching by example in the Passion reached out to the many people around Him in need of wisdom and forgiveness. His compassionate mercy extended to the people who crucified Him, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’(Luke 23:34), and to the man dying beside Him, ‘Indeed I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise’(Luke 23:43). This desperate man was saved on Good Friday because of Jesus’ commitment to be among His enemies as a healer.
I thank our Saviour for always remaining with me in my spiritual blindness, to guide me back to the right path. The martyrs, like Paul Miki and companions whom we remember today, follow Jesus in His mission to witness to God’s indestructible love among those who need it most, regardless of the cost to themselves.
I pray today for the same courage, strength and trust in God to love my enemies as they did.
Pope Benedict XVI wearing a pallium, and a mitre with the Good Shepherd and his sheep.
Catholics will be familiar with Agnes’ name since she is mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer as one of the great early martyrs. She suffered death in her early teens. It seems unlikely that we would respect a modern teenager the way the Church has celebrated Agnes for 1700 years; perhaps we have something to learn from our ancestors!
Agnes was from a noble family who were too prominent to avoid attention in the early fourth century persecutions. When she was arrested, she was steadfast in saying that she was a Christian. It is said that she was desired as a wife or mistress by one of the magistrates. No doubt this would have enabled her to escape execution, but she did not yield.
She was to be burned alive but the wood would not light; instead, Saint Ambrose tells us, she was decapitated with a sword.
There is a special tradition linked to Saint Agnes. On her feast day two lambs are brought from the Abbey of Tre Fontane to be blessed by the pope. When they are shorn later in Spring, the wool is woven by the Benedictine nuns of Saint Caecilia’s Abbey to make Palliums. These special collars are given to new Archbishops by the pope on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Carrying lambs’ wool on the shoulder reminds the Archbishop that he is to be a good shepherd to his flock.
Fr Daniel Weatherley, a Kentish Man, is assistant priest at Saint Thomas’ parish in Canterbury. We welcome him to our team and look forward to more posts from him. He resumes our occasional series reflecting upon relics.
The stream of pilgrims and tourists to see the place of Thomas’ martyrdom continues – and many come into our Church to see his relics. Some stare with bewilderment as to why we should pay honour to a piece of finger-bone! But let us think just what a finger that was! The finger of a hand which was extended in peace to friend and foreigner, to kings and serfs; which held the sacred texts of psalms chanted in long hours of pray; the hand raised in admonition and correction – even unto the King; which was raised in blessing and in the absolution of sins; the hands which offered to the Eternal Father the Body and Blood of His Son, whom Thomas served with such zeal and devotion.
May those who visit us here at St. Thomas’ own parish witness the invisible yet real testimony of lives lived every more consciously and deeply-immersed in the light of God’s Word, revealed in Scripture and explained in the teaching of the Church, and wonderfully strengthened in us by the Holy Spirit and humble participation in the Sacred Mysteries. And then might the earthly realm be seen in its true context: as the willing servant of and, ultimately, reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Canterbury Cathedral, Eleanor Billingsley
Carving of St Thomas at his church, MMB
On the evening of this day in 1170, Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury was hacked to death in his Cathedral. In March 1980, Oscar, Archbishop of San Salvador was gunned down while celebrating the Eucharist.
Two big names from the recent and distant past, both remembered as saints: but what of the thousands suffering persecution and death for their faith today? Not just ‘professional Christians’ like the two archbishops but men, women and children, starved, beaten, exiled, murdered.
Let us pray for those suffering persecution and those trying to help them, including the Franciscans of the Holy Land in Syria. Let us pray, too, for a change of heart among those who are persecuting their brothers and sisters, choosing hatred and fear over love as their way of life. And let us pray that our own hearts be changed, our eyes opened to see what our part might be in this mess: cheap bananas, means low wages, means workers repressed; or cheap petrol,leading to invasion of Iraq, leading to persecution of allegedly ‘West-sympathising’ Christians.
And we can ask for the support of the martyrs as we pray:
- Holy and blissful martyr, Thomas of Canterbury: pray for us
- Blessed Oscar Romero: pray for us
- All holy martyrs: pray for us.
- Mary mother of the Church: pray for us.
We bid goodbye to John Masefield this Advent, remembering that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9.2). And that’s us! Every star is a great light, even if we see no more than a pinprick, since we are far off. And when we look closely at this world, how many stars shine in people’s smiles, in a robin’s eye, a drop of rain? Laudato si’.
By mercy and by martyrdom,
And many ways, God leads us home;
And many darknesses there are.
By darkness and by light he leads,
He gives according to our needs,
And in his darkness is a star. (pp46-47)
Let us pray that we may be instruments of mercy; may be stars in other people’s dark times, and that God’s merciful grace will lead us all home. May we follow his star and seeing the star rejoice with exceeding great joy. (Matthew 2:10)
Let’s take another snapshot from Masefield’s Coming of Christ.
And also there was Paul, receiving mercy, proclaiming mercy:
A tentmaker of Tarsus,
Who will deny you and denounce your followers
To torment and to death; and then will see
Your truth by sudden lightning of the mind,
And then go through the world, telling your truth,
Through scourgings, stoning, bonds, beating with rods,
The wild beasts in the ring, worse beasts in men;
To the sharp sword outside the city gates,
Glad beyond words to drink of your sweet cup,
Lifted and lit by you, christened by you,
Made spirit by you, I who slew your saints.
Jesus told James and John: My chalice indeed you shall drink; but to sit on my right or left hand, is not mine to give to you, but to them for whom it is prepared by my Father. Matthew (20:23) We shall drink of his cup – whether sweet or bitter; we will be lifted and lit by him and strengthened to be tellers of his truth and sharers of his mercy.
John Masefield, in the moments before Christ’s birth, has the angels sing:
No friends await him
To celebrate him,
But foes to hate him
And nails to pierce.
Yet from their hating
To mankind waiting
A star shall shine;
A star assuring
To men enduring
Through ills past curing
A life divine.
(The Coming of Christ, pp 17-18)
The world needs Mercy, loving kindness, even if people are greedy for riches, as we saw in the second of these posts. A star shall shine through their hatred and de-sacred actions.
While we can think of someone like Franciscan Saint Maximilian Kolbe as a star in a time of hatred, giving his life for another prisoner in Auchwitz, there will be times that we may never be aware of in this world, when each of us assures a life divine to a sister or brother.
Maximilian Kolbe was devoted to Mary, mother of mercy, and died on her feast of the Assumption in 1941; today we remember him on another of her feasts, the Immaculate Conception.
Blackthorn opens at the end of Winter, but never one flower alone, always a constellation of Hope.
… waiting, as at the end
of a hard winter
for one flower to open
on the mind’s tree of thorns.
I could not shake off yesterday’s image of a fleshly body, hanging on that tree. Waiting for a flower to open in my mind, I recalled this tree of thorns, the lynchings of black men in America: Strange Fruit:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
While the song was written in response to lynchings in America, we are more than aware that the sudden smell of burning flesh could appear on any breeze, anywhere in the world.
Bitter crops come from bitter seeds. Let us pray for the insight to see how to relieve whatever bitterness we encounter in our neighbours, and the courage to reach out to do so.
 Waiting SP p137