” 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.
I wonder if the sap is stirring yet, If wintry birds are dreaming of a mate, If frozen snowdrops feel as yet the sun And crocus fires are kindling one by one: Sing, robin, sing; I still am sore in doubt concerning Spring.
I wonder if the springtide of this year Will bring another Spring both lost and dear; If heart and spirit will find out their Spring, Or if the world alone will bud and sing: Sing, hope, to me; Sweet notes, my hope, soft notes for memory.
. The sap will surely quicken soon or late, The tardiest bird will twitter to a mate; So Spring must dawn again with warmth and bloom, Or in this world, or in the world to come: Sing, voice of Spring, Till I too blossom and rejoice and sing.
It feels here like Christina Rossetti never got out of doors, which was sometimes the case as she often was in poor health. The last verse reads like, ‘Pull yourself together, girl!’ She doesn’t much feel like rejoicing, but all the same is listening out for the voice of Spring, the sound of her Creator at work.
However miserable we may feel, let us pray this Lent that we may hear the voice of spring, ready to bloom in this world AND the world to come.
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.
If you are just joining this daily reflections blog, I invite you to scroll back two days to find out what we are thinking about. Today, Jesus, in Luke 18: 1-8, gives us his third surprise. He seems to be saying that we must play the role of the feisty widow in relation not to a sinful human being, but in relation to God himself. No wonder St Luke was a bit nervous about this parable. For Jesus is saying to us here, “You’ve got to be like her with God. God’s not trying to make you a victim, but it might feel like that sometimes. And so you’ve just got to stay with it. Keep praying. No matter what happens or doesn’t happen. Just stay with God. Some things take time. God sees the big picture. Don’t give up and don’t switch off with God.” While we’re still taking this in Jesus gives us our fourth surprise.
Here comes Jesus’ curmudgeonly judge-God again. Jesus paints him as someone who can actually be intimidated by us and our persistence. Pace, St Luke. This is not systematic theology, it is a parable – something more like a poem or a song that tells us what it “feels” like, how things “seem” to be in our relationship with God. And the point is important enough for Jesus to take the risk of being misunderstood. He’s saying, with maybe a twitch of a smile, if you stick with God, God will eventually seem to cave in and to say, “Oh, for the love of Mike. This lady will slap me if I don’t give her what she wants. Looks like I’d better do something for her.”
This perhaps becomes clearer when we consider Jesus’ final words. At the end of this passage, Jesus resumes the gravitas that we usually associate with him, but his words seem enigmatic at first, and even self-contradictory:
And the Lord said, ‘You notice what the unjust judge has to say? Now, will not God see justice done to his elect if they keep calling to him day and night even though he still delays to help them? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily. But when the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’
Jesus ends with a very un-playful plea for faith. A superficial reading of this passage might make its final words seem out of place. But we have been trying to go in deep over the last three days, and I think we can begin to see what Jesus is saying. He first says, in effect, that if such an unjust creature as this judge will eventually come round, will not God do so also? Seems clear enough. Yet, then, Jesus returns to the theme of God’s apparent delay, and seems to be trying to say two opposing things at once. In line eight, we are told to expect that God will seem to delay to help us. But immediately following those words, he seems to promise the opposite, that God will ‘see justice done, and done speedily.’ What does he mean?
I think Jesus is handing us a paradox – for this is the only way of describing God’s grace. On one hand, God’s help seems to be forever in coming, as we pray and wait in agony for a specific outcome to our prayer that never arrives. And then, time passes, and if we stay with our prayer and our hope in God, we begin to realize a few things. We see that as we have waited and prayed, we have changed. We see that as we have waited and prayed, other circumstances around us have changed – in ways that are surprising and that we had not asked for. It gradually becomes clear that we have been given the answer to our prayer – an answer that is not what we expected, but that blesses us more deeply than we could have imagined. And then we look back and see that God has, in fact, been answering our prayer all along, invisibly, yet speedily and unwaveringly guiding us to this particular moment when we discover his grace and healing.
‘When the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’ Jesus asks. What kind of faith is that? The widow shows us. It’s faith that, with feisty determination, clings to God as our helper; faith that refuses to take no for an answer. For, God is our helper, Jesus wants us to know in this parable. Just wait and see. That is reason for Jesus to smile, and even play a bit. He invites us to do so, also.
Thank you, Sister Johanna. There is a link between faith and a sense of humour that seems to start from infancy: babies and toddlers often seem to see the ridiculous side of life. And what, after all, is more ridiculous than the idea of the Creator of all becoming a human baby?
Second right in the bottom row: this could sum up the experience of the widow in Jesus’ parable that Sister Johanna is reflecting upon. ‘I’ve never felt so powerless in my life.’ Or further up: ‘I feel there is nothing to look forward to.’ It’s not something new to the Covid experience that makes people feel this way. 2,000 years ago, they must have said similar things to Jesus, and he put their experience into this parable, now opened anew for us by Sister Johanna.
We are looking at Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge, from Luke 18:1- 8. I recommend that you scroll back to yesterday’s post to catch up with us. We’re looking at an unusually playful parable, starring a curmudgeonly judge, and we’re wondering what Jesus is really getting at by presenting his ideas in this way. We find out by listening to the lines he allows the judge-curmudgeon to say, ‘… I have neither fear of God nor respect for any human person….’ This phrase comes twice in the short parable – the first time Jesus himself uses it to describe the judge, and the second time, he lets the judge say it to describe himself. Repetition is a device used to drive home a home truth. Jesus wants us to hear these words. What is the truth that they contain, then?
I think, first, the words tell us that Jesus understands what it is like for us to pray and not feel heard. He understands how, in our life with God, it sometimes feels as though God himself is the uncaring one, who delays and delays to help us, even though we ‘cry to him day and night.’ When we are going through such an experience, we feel alone, and it seems to us that no one in the history of the world has been through this kind of desolation except us. But in fact, Jesus knows that this is an archetypal experience. Jesus’ listeners at the time would have had it, we have it, all praying people in between us and them have had it. So we can nod our heads as Jesus’ first hearers must have done. Perhaps some in his audience will have begun to cry as Jesus’ words went home and exposed a deeply painful wound or a long-standing problem that felt overwhelming. Jesus is saying here, “I know. It sometimes feels like this when you pray to God for help. He seems unheeding. Here’s me, praying night and day, and nothing changes. Does God care?”
Second: Jesus in this parable is giving us permission to admit that we have these kinds of thoughts and feelings about God. Sometimes it is very difficult not to think of God as anything other than an extremely unjust judge. But why should Jesus encourage us to admit that we feel this way? Because faith is not about pretending to possess a level of ‘holiness’ that we do not really possess. We will return to the subject of faith at the end of our reflections tomorrow. For now, we can say that our faith in God is what allows us to tell God exactly how it feels to be me right now, and, as such, to tell him what we think of him. God knows this already, of course. But perhaps we don’t. Faith is sometimes about discovering who we are, as much as it is about discovering who God is. So, the Lord wants us to tell God all about it, with as much honesty as we can summon, while still hanging on to God for dear life.
The last nine words of the previous paragraph are vital. In light of them, let’s look at the character of the widow in this parable. What role does she play? A widow, in biblical shorthand, represents those who are neediest in society, those who have few human resources, who are alone and must fight hard in order even to be noticed by the current power-base. In this parable we find just such a fighter – a woman in whom the curmudgeonly judge meets his match. Feisty and determined, and as crabby and calculating in her way as he was, she “…kept on coming to him and saying, ‘I want justice from you against my enemy.’” Do I detect a hint of falsetto in Jesus’ rendering of these words? Maybe we all know the type of character the widow represents. Possibly, if we know her well, we are a bit afraid of her. But, don’t we admire her when some film or television drama features a character like this, who refuses to be the victim of whatever or whoever is trying to make her one?
We’re going to pause again here and return tomorrow to continue our meditation.
José Maria Cantal Rivas is a Missionary of Africa working in Algeria. During a sabbatical year he took a qualification as a Life Coach and is putting it to good use among young people. It is not his task to preach with the immediate intention of ‘Christianising’ his students, but to be a witness to Christ’s empowering love among them. Fr José Maria sees his work as a form of inculturalisation – getting alongside the people he is sent to bring the Good News to. He tells about his experiences in the article from which this post is extracted; the link below is to the French language original. How can we be Christ for young people in our own community?
‘My “students” come to realise that very often it is they themselves who are the chief obstacles and brakes impeding their own happiness. They have mentally forbidden themselves the right to imagine that their daily life could be different.
‘Many people seem to think that happiness will arrive one day in the post, in just one delivery, and when the parcel is opened, they will find happiness, all “ready to wear”. Very few are aware that to be happy, like body building, needs time to be given up to it; needs perseverance and discipline, as well as clear priorities and passion. There’s no other way!
The course is given in French and Arabic. Wherever possible I try to use examples, videos, personalities, literature from their Arab-Muslim culture: firstly to avoid any suspicion of proselytism, but above all to confirm that what I propose is practicable and compatible with their culture.
A short presentation by the Algerian women’s Paralympic basketball team, even if the sound quality is poor, has more impact that an excellent video from a similar team from a northen country!
Africa in general is changing and it seems to me that it’s good to know how Africans themselves, with their rich culture, face up to changes such as the spectacular rise in the numbers of women at university and in the world of work; the influence of the internet, demographic changes, new forms of social organisation, spiritual longings divorced from religion, urbanisation and so on.’
It’s about time we sat back to listen to Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey, who knows how to tell a story afresh, with help from Alfie the Collie.
Even the puppies eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table (Mt.15:27).
I think it would be wonderful to be irresistible to Jesus, to surprise him by getting something really right, make him do a double-take and ask, ‘Did she just say that?’ It rarely happens in the gospels, but there are a few instances of it. And one of them is recounted in Matthew 15:21-28.
Jesus and his disciples are travelling, on foot, as usual. They are in the region of Tyre and Sidon – a gentile area. A Canaanite woman, gentile therefore, turns up. And she starts shouting at the top of her lungs, calling to Jesus. At first, her talent seems to lie chiefly in making a pest of herself – at least as far as the disciples are concerned, for they urge Jesus to give her what she wants, ‘…because she keeps shouting after us.’ We know the type, and cringe. The woman is pushy–in the extreme: she’s noisy, her voice probably harsh and grating, she’s insistent, she won’t be brushed off. She shouts out two titles to grab Jesus’ attention (maybe one will work): ‘Lord! Son of David!’ Then ‘…take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ Over and over, apparently.
And Jesus seems to be ignoring her. Even after reading this story many, many times over the years, I still feel a jolt at Jesus seeming to blank this woman. Why does he do it? I think Jesus himself answers that question when he says to the disciples, ‘But I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ To my mind, what Jesus is saying here is that he is not sure whether the woman would have the capacity to receive what he could give her. Her religious background was unknown; at least the lost sheep of the House of Israel would have the religious sensibility to understand Jesus’ message–or they would in theory, anyway. The gentiles would largely need a different approach. How much would this woman be able to grasp of Jesus’ teaching and his person? I think Jesus’ uncertainty is real. But he will soon have an answer to his question.
The woman overhears what Jesus says, and she has the pluck to come right up to him and show him what she is able to understand. First, she again appeals to his compassion: ‘Lord, help me.’ By this time, whenever I read the story, I am always on her side, pest or no pest, and I really don’t want Jesus to say what he says next, but there’s no help for it. He says: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the puppies.’ Scholarly exegesis is always quick to point out that Jesus isn’t insulting her; not really. In that culture and at that time, the word for puppies or little dogs softens an expression which itself was a conventional one devoid of the sting we would read into it. It was standard for Jews to refer to gentiles as dogs, evidently. With all our sensitivities today, it is still hard for us not to be taken aback, but it’s possible to imagine Jesus with a kindly expression in his eyes as he refers to the ‘little dogs’ or ‘puppies.’ And, the fact is, the Canaanite woman doesn’t object to it. In fact, she revels in it. It is exactly the handle she needs to hoist herself up in Jesus’ estimation – by a mile. Her life is about to become a lot better.
She has come to Jesus with absolutely no claims and no pretensions. She does not try to be what she isn’t; she isn’t a child of Israel, and she expects to be called a little dog. At the same time, she knows what she knows about Jesus, and she is certain that Jesus has supernatural power capable of healing her daughter. She is determined to obtain her daughter’s healing from him. So she is ready for him. To Jesus’ comment about not wanting to throw the children’s food to the puppies, she makes the brilliant and faith-filled rejoinder: ‘Ah, yes, Lord, but even the little dogs eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table.’
Suddenly this pest is transformed into a paragon of everything Jesus wants to see in us. She is loving. She is straightforward about herself. She is full of faith with regard to Jesus. She is brave, truthful, frank, plucky and, as a bonus, ingeniously witty. This combination is irresistible to him. She understands all right, probably a lot better than some of the lost sheep of Israel do, and is fully able to receive the gift that Jesus is able to give. ‘Woman, you have great faith!’ he exclaims. ‘Let your desire be granted!’ And surely, this was said with an amazed smile and even a laugh on Jesus’ part. She must have filled Jesus with such joy, even as she herself was filled with joy by Jesus.
I said at the beginning that I’d like to be irresistible to Jesus, surprising him by the strength of my faith. This story makes me question some attitudes I have. Would I be as plucky as the Canaanite woman? She knew that as a gentile, she was not entitled to Jesus’ gift, but she was willing to receive any scrap from him that she could scavenge, and knew that such a scrap would be filled with his mighty power. How do I measure up against her willingness and faith? Against her perseverance in prayer? Don’t I tend to grow discouraged? Don’t I bring a subtle attitude of entitlement to prayer? I am not entitled to Jesus’ gift of friendship, healing and eternal salvation any more that she was. When Jesus seems to ignore my prayer, when he seems silent, don’t I feel just a bit put out? A little bit of entitlement is not much better than a lot of it. Perhaps by meditating on this Canaanite woman I may learn from her the attitudes that Jesus finds irresistible, and then find that we are cooperating in joy.
The prophet Elijah has his feastday today, though comparatively few of us observe it. He is counted as an inspiration by Carmelites, for he lived as a hermit on Mount Carmel, where the Order was founded, centuries before it came to Europe.
Elijah does not have a book to his name, as Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos and others do, but we know of his witness in the Northern Kingdom of Israel from the Books of Kings.
It was on Mount Carmel that Elijah faced down the prophets of Baal and the people of Israel, who were worshipping both the Lord and Baal. More than 400 prophets of Baal danced and sang all day to their god, but nothing happened to their offering. Elijah, having built his altar, added firewood and the sacrifice of a bull’s carcase, drenched it all in water, and the Lord sent fire to consume it all.
Later, when Elijah was close to despair with the wickedness of the people and King Ahab, he ran away, but the Lord sent ravens to feed him and strengthen him. That is the scene shown here in a house sign from Amsterdam.
Elijah faithfully challenged Ahab on God’s behalf, but it did not make for an easy life, as the Books of Kings tell us. Let’s pray for the grace of perseverance in our own lives.
If I do not use these pictures soon, the moment will have completely passed. On one of our walks we passed these two Kentish orchards, one old, one new. How many years will the old one keep fruiting? And how long will the new one be productive? It represents a massive act of hope in the future, something we all need with the virus restricting our lives. (click on the photo to see the other orchard.)
The tombstone of Harry and Winifred Cuthbert proclaims that they were ‘dedicated’ to farming and fruit growing, witness the strawberry plant seen here. Every seed, every plant is an act of hope. So is a smile, a wave, a word of encouragement.
A thought from the French singer-songwriter Laurent Voulzy, who put off writing a song to Jesus for 10 years. You can hear him sing it at the link below.
Right now, I am searching, I pray every day, I go into churches and I look at the diversity of faces … and I see wickedness in some of them …
The idea of faith as perseverance, full of humour and beautiful light, is a part of my prayer. It gives me a reason to believe, to feel joy every day, even if our times do not evoke it. My faith consists of questions. God is in all the faces I see, in all the questions that I put to myself. And in my search for answers…