Tag Archives: question

27 June. My vocation today XVII: Gwen John, artist.

Mere Marie Poussepin by Gwen John, 1876-1939.

Gwen John was from Pembrokeshire in West Wales. Her more famous brother, Augustus, was also an artist. Gwen studied art in London and in Paris, becoming the lover of the much older sculptor Rodin; hardly a woman with a vocation, you might feel. Yet as her passionate affair with him came to an end, she was received into the Catholic Church and lived a quite solitary life with her cats, which she often painted.

She began writing meditations and prayers; she wanted to be a saint and God’s little artist: ‘My religion and my art, they are my life’, she is quoted as saying by Tenby Museum and gallery.

About 1913, to oblige the Dominican Sisters of Charity at Meudon, she began a series of painted portraits of their founder Mere Marie Poussepin, based on a prayer card.

In Meudon she lived in solitude, except for her cats. In an undated letter she wrote, “I should like to go and live somewhere where I met nobody I know till I am so strong that people and things could not effect me beyond reason.” She wished also to avoid family ties (“I think the family has had its day. We don’t go to Heaven in families now but one by one”) and her decision to live in France after 1903 may have been partly to escape the overpowering personality of her famous brother.

Art was her vocation, and perhaps something of an obsession; or should we say she was single-minded? Previous generations would have revered her as a repentant sinner, a term most likely to be used of a woman who had abandoned promiscuous ways. It was not so cut and dried as that. Just look at this self portrait, and it appears that her vocation was to question, to seek. to record what she saw, and to go back and begin her search again.

‘My religion and my art, they are my life’.

self portrait.

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10 May: What do you see in the mirror?

It used to be one of the standard questions in those short celebrity interviews: Who (or what) do you see in the mirror in the morning? Perhaps it’s been quietly dropped because interviewees came to expect it and had answers ready, answers to sell their new film, tv show or book.

Saint James would have us look into a mirror, a looking glass. We like mirrors, here at Agnellus’, even when they make us look ridiculous.

But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if a man be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he shall be compared to a man beholding his own countenance in a glass. For he beheld himself, and went his way, and presently forgot what manner of man he was.

But he that hath looked into the perfect law of liberty, and hath continued therein, not becoming a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work; this man shall be blessed in his deed.

James 1:22-25

The mirror to see ourselves in is the ‘perfect law of liberty’: how do we use the liberty we have been given, or would have been given if our hands had not been clenched, deep in our pockets? We will never reach the day’s end without refusing or abusing our liberty in some way, great or small, but we can look into the mirror of liberty, and with our God-given freedom, do better tomorrow.

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7 February: Zebedee, Part III

Mrs Turnstone’s two little fish from Aberdaron, Wales. Reminding us of a pilgrimage.

Sister Johanna concludes her reflection on Zebedee. Thank you Sister!

For two days, we have been considering the call of James and John through the eyes of Zebedee, their father. If you are just joining us today, it’s advisable that you scroll back two days to see how we’ve arrived here. Today we’ll begin our reflection with the silence of Zebedee, as he acquiesces to what Jesus has just done. This is what Mark seems to wonder at, I believe – the text suggests this to me. If the evangelists had gone in for textual emphasis, then maybe the words, LEAVING THEIR FATHER ZEBEDEE WITH THE MEN HE EMPLOYED IN THE BOAT would have looked something like that, with everything else in lower case lettering. And I wonder at this, too: Zebedee himself was not asked by Jesus to follow him. Only his sons were asked. Zebedee, in fact, wasn’t asked anything – he was not even acknowledged by Jesus, and James and John didn’t even say good-bye. They all acted as though Zebedee wasn’t there. What does Zebedee think? How does he feel? He doesn’t say. He is silent.

But maybe this silence itself says something. Maybe Zebedee is silently saying, “I will not interfere with my sons’ relationship to Jesus”. This is remarkable because his non-interference involves the loss of something extremely precious to him – his sons. Their presence. Their help, Their daily expressions of filial love. But Zebedee doesn’t interfere,

either now or later. Whatever in Zebedee’s silence that could have been attributed to shock does not change once Zebedee gets over it. There is no record of Zebedee turning up at Jesus’ camp later and saying, “Hey! I want my sons back!” Zebedee’s acceptance of this strange turn of events is total.

Where does this reflection on Zebedee leave me? I suppose it leaves me with the recognition that sometimes Jesus’ actions toward those we love are unfathomable and leave us in a state of incredulity. We see that Jesus is requiring something of someone we love, and we see them responding. Maybe it looks crazy to us – looks contrary to all that they’ve been prepared for and to everything we expected of them. And, worse, maybe we’re required to give them up now, or change our relationship in a way that hurts us. What will we do? How will we manage? Nor do we understand Jesus’ actions – actions which leave us with a lot of very good questions, and no answers. We simply don’t understand what is going on or why.

How would I react if I were Zebedee? How am I reacting now to the unfathomable aspects of Jesus’ actions toward those I love? He’s not asking me for my opinion; he doesn’t seem to be taking me into account at all. Could I, can I be as silent and trusting as Zebedee? Could I do this long-term? Perhaps Zebedee is one of the New Testament’s greatest saints.

Knowing when not to interfere … that’s wisdom!

Here’s another look – or looks – at this story from the Visual Commentary on Scripture, ‘Fishing for People.‘ VCS is a free series of reflections through works of art.

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9 May: The Jesus Problem, Part II

Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey continues her reflections on God, money, politics and good faith.

The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. They sent their disciples to Jesus, together with some Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you. Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ (Matthew 22:15-16).

Today we’ll continue our lectio reflection on Matthew 22:15-22. If you weren’t here yesterday, I recommend that you scroll back and see what we were thinking about. Today, I’d like us to use our imagination, and try to picture the group Jesus is talking to. These disciples of the Pharisees: what are they like? We need first to acknowledge that they are not the finished product, they are still in training, still students of the Pharisees; they will probably be young men, therefore. This suggests that some of them will still be impressionable, idealistic, and sincerely seeking the truth. As is the case in any group of people, they will not all be made of the same stuff and won’t all have identical mind-sets. Many – even most – will have been completely prejudiced against Jesus by the Pharisees. But some, surely, would be young men with more independence of mind and character. Despite the Pharisees’ attempts to brain-wash them, the young men of this stamp will have retained some willingness to listen to Jesus, and to test not Jesus so much as the Pharisees’ idea of Jesus. They will want to find out for themselves if Jesus really is the strange villain he has been made out to be. You might say that this sub-group within the larger group is ‘on the fence.’

Now, imagine yourself a member of this sub-group. You do not know Jesus first-hand. You don’t quite know what you think of him yet. This is the first time you have even seen Jesus and dealt with him, but you are a little ashamed of the way some of your peers are behaving toward Jesus.

So you try to study Jesus, physically, to see what story his body may tell. Jesus is broad-shouldered and lean. You know he had been a carpenter before. His muscular body shows that he’s no stranger to hard physical labour. Jesus’ face is arresting in the energy it seems to radiate. His colour is high, but his deep-set dark eyes look tired – although they are clear, and they seem to take everything in. He scans the little group of young men now. Is there even one pair of eyes willing to make sympathetic eye-contact with Jesus, you wonder? The Herodians are a lost cause: not one of them will meet Jesus’ gaze. Some of your peers meet his eye with a hard, belligerent stare, particularly the speaker. You’ve seen that look on the face of your fifteen year old cousin when his father tells him something he doesn’t want to hear. Others fold their arms over their chest and, after a brief glance at Jesus, pretend that there is something interesting on the ground to look at.

What do you do? You are struck by Jesus’ posture. It is open. It is vulnerable, yet strong. There is no evasiveness in him – nor any aggression. He is fully present. You can’t help it: you are impressed by Jesus. You sense his goodness, intelligence and integrity. This is no charlatan. But there is something in him you can’t quite understand. A sort of longing. And an indescribable sadness. You meet his gaze. You want to know what he will do next and you find that you are on his side.

Jesus seems to understand you – or you deeply hope he does. You feel a connection with him. He has been silent for several long moments. He is not rushing this. And, surprisingly, no one interrupts this silence. This is unusual; the cut and thrust of debate is what this little group of men loves. Usually, silence in their opponent is interpreted as a win for their side. But no one regards this silence as a win. This Jesus has an uncanny ability to hold a group’s attention. At last he says something odd to the speaker: ‘Show me the money you pay the tax with.’ Now it’s the speaker’s turn to try to hold the crowd’s attention. He decides he’ll take his time, too. He doesn’t react at first. Then he wags his head slightly in mockery, narrows his eyes, smirks, glances to the side, but otherwise doesn’t move. The crowd, though, isn’t with him, and he suddenly realises this. Someone makes an impatient noise from the back, and pushes forward to show Jesus a denarius. That someone is you.

You hold out the coin in your open palm. You feel strangely emotional. Jesus is looking around at all of them again, but he is soon looking straight at you, and says: ‘Whose portrait is this? Whose title?’ Of course, it is Caesar’s. You don’t answer aloud but you continue to look at Jesus, who is now looking at the crowd again. Someone shouts out the obvious answer. Jesus slowly shrugs a bit and says in an off-hand way, ‘Then give to Caesar what belongs to him.’ And here he pauses and looks you fully in the face once more. Your eyes are streaming now. You feel as though he knows you, your past, your present, your hurt, your deep desire for meaning and love. The group is completely silent behind you. No one even moves. Jesus speaks quietly: ‘…and give God what belongs to God.’ He takes your hand that is still stretched out with the coin in it, gently rolls the fingers around the coin, and gives it a firm clasp with both his hands. Then he disengages.

The stunned crowd quietly leaves Jesus. You stay behind. What has just happened to you?

SJC

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18 February: Reduced to Silence

A Lampedusa cross should reduce us to silence. This is in the British Museum, it was made from wrecked migrants’ boats.

They did not dare to ask Jesus any more questions (Luke 20:40). This sentence from the Gospel of St. Luke comes at the end of a passage that tells of an exchange between Jesus and some Sadducees. As usual, the Sadducees have an agenda. They were not keen on this upstart travelling rabbi, Jesus, and were looking for ways to up-end him. They decide that a theological debate might be a good way to do it. Therefore, they think up a rather implausible tale of a woman who outlives not only her first husband but her seven subsequent husbands (all brothers of her first husband, obliged under the Law to marry the widow and ‘raise up children for the brother’ if the previous union had been childless). Finally the widow dies. And the Saducees’s question for Jesus is: ‘At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’

The Sadducees did not accept the notion of the resurrection from the dead. The hypothetical scenario they invented is meant to illustrate how ridiculous resurrection from the dead is. They seem pretty sure of themselves here, convinced that they have articulated an unsolvable problem. They expected to stump Jesus and to make him withdraw from the conversation, a disgraced loser.

As I reread and ponder this passage of Luke’s gospel, I can see the Sadducees gathered around, the speaker feigning seriousness, while secretly flicking supercilious glances at the others. They are subtly mocking Jesus. In typical adolescent fashion, they completely overestimate their own abilities and underestimate Jesus’; they are unprepared for his skill in theological debate, unprepared for a mind and personality like his.

I would love to have been there. St Luke shows that Jesus, with consummate courtesy and intelligence, not only pays the Sadducees the compliment of taking their question seriously, but answers it on such a deep level as to leave them amazed (Luke 20:34-38). When Jesus crafts his answer, his listeners were given the privilege of observing the workings of a truly beautiful mind. Anyone who has ever been in the class of a teacher who is a brilliant and deep thinker knows how exciting it can be to witness that teacher’s handling of difficult and subtle questions – off the cuff. There is always a moment after the question is posed when everyone wonders how the teacher will deal with the problem. Then, all the students share in the moments of unexpected enlightenment that break through as the teacher unravels easily and eloquently what, to everyone else, was a very tangled knot. It is an impressive event. Even those who are prejudiced against the teacher cannot avoid, if they are honest with themselves, being impressed . They may defend against it, as did the Sadducees here, but for the moment, even they must be quietly gob-smacked.

If you want to study Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, I refer you to the text of Luke 20: 27-40. But the word-for-word answer is not actually what I want to linger over right now. What is amazing to me is that when Jesus finishes his answer to the Sadducees’s question, the whole pack of them ‘do not dare’ to ask him any other questions. This is a major achievement on Jesus’ part. The verbal cut and thrust of debate was what the professional religious thrived on, and practised daily. They were good at it and knew it. But Jesus was better. He could not be wrong-footed by them. They are, unusually, reduced to silence.

Most encounters that Jesus has in the gospels can tell us something about prayer. Can this one? At first this seems unlikely, but further reflection has made me change my mind.

There are some questions I think I need to answer honestly first. One, I wonder how prepared I am to experience a mind like Jesus’? Do I expect to be surprised by the depth of his penetration into my difficulties? Or do I want to reduce his mind to a smaller size – do I want, with at least a little part of myself, to outwit him? Two, do I realise that I am not always mature? Jesus will expose my immaturity – am I willing to accept what he may show me in that area? Three, on the other hand, I may be sincerely stumped, sincerely at the end of my endurance because of what life has thrown at me. I may ask for enlightenment, and Jesus may seem silent. In the event recounted by Luke, the Sadducees receive their answer immediately. I am, seemingly, not always so fortunate. But, what this story teaches me is that Jesus’ answer is probably going deeper than I expected. I may be right out of my depth, and that is why it seems that he has not answered. In reality, the answer is there, but I need to become deeper myself, to ‘grow into’ Jesus’ answer.

I seek, through prayer, a real encounter with Jesus, Lord and God. Like the Sadducees, I too may reach points when I do not dare to ask Jesus any more questions because of the depth of Jesus’ response to me. The Sadducees went away, however, only to continue to plot and scheme against Jesus. What do I do after I finish my prayer?

SJC

Lent is a time of prayer, a real encounter with Jesus. I’ve been saving this post from Sister Johanna till the right moment, and the beginning of Lent is a time of silence, as Our Lord experienced in the desert. It’s been something of a desert time for us all of late; let us use Lent to learn the depths of our love for those we are missing.

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Going viral LVI: Jo’s Joy


Here is the latest bulletin from Rev Jo Richards of St Dunstan’s, Canterbury. Advent has been a bit different this year!

I must share with you the joy of yesterday – I was invited to take a Christingle service in a local primary school – last year they packed St Dunstan’s church, twice over, and for obvious reasons they couldn’t come to St Dunstan’s and I went to school. Two assemblies – one year R 4&5 year olds, and then year 3: 7 & 8 year olds. They are making Christingles, and I took my ‘giant Christingle’ and we talked through the symbolism of it all….despite all the covid disruption these children were a delight and so interested and engaging. Then we had Q&A session. The most profound questions that came from the Yr 3 children: If Jesus was such a good person, why was he killed, where is Jesus now? How did the Resurrection take place? And this went on for about 20 mins – just amazing, and all so thoughtful, and again the children all so incredibly well behaved. It was an absolute joy to share the morning with them.

You’ve probably noticed that the ‘Going Viral’ posts are well and truly out of sequence, and have doubtless concluded either that Will has lost it, or that some posts are scheduled a little in advance, while others are posted on or soon after we hear from someone with an interesting tale. Thank you, Jo. for today and other days!

Will

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7 December: One Good Deed, I.

Welcome back to Sister Johanna with a double posting that fits well with tomorrow’s feast of Mary Immaculate, as the second article makes plain. Great as she is, Mary is one of us; eternal life did not always come easily for her.

Master, what good deed must I do to possess eternal life?

Matthew 19:16–22

This is the question asked of Jesus by the one who is forever described but never named: the rich young man. I know this story well. I can’t begin it without a little sinking feeling in my soul because I know how it will end. I have come to call the person who asks this question ‘the poor rich young man,’ poor in the sense of deeply unfortunate. He walks away from Jesus. What could possibly be more tragic? But let’s not get ahead of the story. Lectio divina is a practice of reading bible passages slowly, even the ones I know well, in order to give the Holy Spirit time to lead me into a new understanding of God’s life in me.

So, what happened this time when I read? Well, in the very first line, I was taken aback by the fact that this young man asks Jesus about a ‘good deed’ – in the singular. I must have been in a feisty mood this morning, for I felt that had I been there with Jesus and that young man, I’d have been tempted to toss my head disdainfully and, hands on hips, invite this well-dressed specimen of human affluence to tell me why or how he could possibly imagine that only one good deed would suffice to attain heaven? But, had I done so, I would not have been a help to Jesus. His ways are not my ways.

And his way is almost always a puzzling one. Jesus says to him,

Why ask me what is good? There is one alone who is good. But if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’

This time, as I puzzled over Jesus’ words once again, I asked the Lord in prayer why he had said, ‘Why ask me what is good?’ It seemed so dismissive. And something immediately occurred to me: perhaps I was putting the accent on the wrong word and misunderstanding the question. The point Jesus is trying to make, maybe, is not ‘Why ask me what is good?’ but ‘Why ask me what is good.’ Jesus might be trying to remind the young man that the one who alone is good, the Father, has already made it perfectly clear what we need to do in order to attain eternal life. Keep the commandments. There is no mystery here, and no need to ask the question. The answer has been there since the beginning of the covenant. “Why ask at all?” Jesus seems to be saying to the young man.

The young man seems to understand Jesus, and to Jesus’ remark, ‘Keep the commandments,’ replies, perhaps with some defensiveness, ‘Which ones?’ And immediately, I’m on my high horse again. I am tempted to toss my head and snort, “Oh, come on! Don’t be such a goon. All of them! There are only ten, after all! Or maybe you’re hoping that Jesus will give you a bargain, reduce the price, give you heaven for, maybe, five of the commandments rather than all ten. Your preoccupation with expense is exposed here. For you, this is all about reducing the cost, isn’t it? If you can buy heaven for less than ten commandments, you’ll consider it.” And it could be that these uncharitable thoughts of mine have some truth in them. But, again, Jesus does not handle the matter my way at all.

I would like to pause here for today and climb down off my high horse. Tomorrow, perhaps in a kinder mood, I’ll resume my reflection.

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Leaves

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is birchlime.png

The leaves are almost all down around here. The Victorian poet Alice Meynell also took note of them, investing them with human emotions, asking eternal questions.

“O leaves, so quietly ending now,
   You have heard cuckoos sing.
And I will grow upon my bough
   If only for a Spring,
And fall when the rain is on my brow.

O tell me, tell me ere you die,
   Is it worth the pain?
You bloomed so fair, you waved so high;
   Now that the sad days wane,
Are you repenting where you lie?”

From “Poems” by Alice Meynell

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22 August: Gilbert White IX, summer birds.

blackcap by Ron Knight

As to the short-winged, soft-billed birds, which come trooping in such numbers in the spring, I am at a loss even what to suspect about them.  I watched them narrowly this year, and saw them abound till about Michaelmas, when they appeared no longer.  Subsist they cannot openly among us, and yet elude the eyes of the inquisitive; and, as to their hiding, no man pretends to have found any of them in a torpid state in the winter.  But with regard to their migration, what difficulties attend that supposition! that such feeble bad fliers (who the summer long never flit but from hedge to hedge) should be able to traverse vast seas and continents in order to enjoy milder seasons amidst the regions of Africa!

LETTER XXIX.

Selborne, May 12th, 1770.

Dear Sir,—Last month we had such a series of cold, turbulent weather, such a constant succession of frost, and snow, and hail, and tempest, that the regular or appearance of the summer birds was much interrupted.  Some did not show themselves (at least were not heard) till weeks after their usual time, as the blackcap and whitethroat; and some have not been heard yet, as the grasshopper-lark and largest willow-wren.  As to the fly-catcher, I have not seen it; it is indeed one of the latest, but should appear about this time: and yet, amidst all this meteorous strife and war of the elements, two swallows discovered themselves, as long ago as April 11th, in frost and snow; but they withdrew quickly, and were not visible again for many days.  House-martins, which are always more backward than swallows, were not observed till May came in.

I repeat that we are reproducing White’s letters because it is the tercentenary of this rural parson’s birth, nd because he is a well-known exemplar of the man of faith and of science combined.

What a lovely turn of phrase, ‘meteorous strife and war of the elements’! Up in Selborne, Gilbert White did not have chance to observe the (to us) nearby beaches of Hampshire and Sussex, or the ground below lighthouses where birds, confused and dazzled by the life-saving lantern, were cast down after striking the glass. He would have gathered all the evidence he needed for migration, down by the sea.

Some Blackcaps winter with us these days.

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4 April, Desert XXXVI: Perseverance and Beauty.

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…

Laurent Voulzy

Door of Mercy, Holy Family Basilica, Zakopane, Poland.

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