We are told (Luke 1.29) that, at the Annunciation, Mary ‘was troubled at his (the angel’s) saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be.’ The troubles did not end there, as Simeon foretold: (Luke 2:35) ‘And thy own soul a sword shall pierce.’
I would like to take a sideways look at this story with a passage from Father Andrew SDC, writing to a woman recently bereaved in World War II.
‘If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable,’ (1 Corinthians 15:19) because, indeed, as S. Paul knew so well from his own experiences, our Christian hope brings us all sorts of pains which we only have because of it; I mean the pain that comes from the failure to live up to it, and the pain of sacrifices made because of it, and also as it deepens and enriches our relationships and makes our friendships much more deep and sacred, so our partings are made more poignant as each beloved one is taken from us. But it is not in this life only that we have hope in Christ, and so we can smile through our tears and be sure that our dear ones are with Christ, and nearer to him are not farther from us.
Life and Letters of Fr Andrew, p 162.
How much pain Mary took on trust when she agreed to the angel’s request!
One cold January day I was informed that my student ‘was in a bad place’ and had gone to see a counsellor. Father Andrew’s words here would not resonate for them just now but this can be a difficult time of year for many people. As we come to Candlemas when Simeon met Mary and Joseph at the Temple, only to recognise Jesus as the Saviour, let us take to heart his words, accepting his own coming death in peace, while warning Mary of great hurt to come.
The Queen of Saints said, ‘Be it unto me according to Thy word,’ and old Simeon said, ‘Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word.’ The unfolding of what God’s word was to be for her meant, as Simeon told her, that a sword should pierce her own soul. It may be that you and I have to know the unfolding of God’s word in a soul-piercing. It does not cloud our joy really that it may be so, nor does it trespass upon our peace.
The Life and Letters of Fr Andrew p120.
Let us pray for all who feel broken hearted, desperate and desolate that they may find true peace even in great adversity.
Here am I dying in the dark, and I came to bring light to the World. I am dying at the hands of hate, and I came to bring love to the world. Death is closing in on me, and I came to bring life to the world. But I remain true to my Faith; dying in the dark I believe in the Light; killed by hate I trust Love; with death closing in on me I believe in Life; on the third day I shall rise again.
In any darkness still trust the Light, in any hatred still trust love, and be sure that, though all consciousness be slipping from you and you yourself seem to be slipping into a void, eternal Life is yours.
These words of Fr Andrew SDC complement yesterday’s reflection by Tennyson. ‘Still trust the Light!’
Life and Letters of Father Andrew, p118.
The train’s dirty window enhanced the gloom: the person I was meant to be meeting was ‘in a bad place’; it was cold, grey and drizzling. The English Channel was cold and grey. Brrr.
Break, break, break: I thought of Tennyson’s lines.
Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
O well for the fisherman’s boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.
The rest of the world gets on with life, but we may well feel speechless, heartbroken. Break, break, break!
And he saith to them: My soul is sorrowful even unto death; stay you here, and watch. And when he was gone forward a little, he fell flat on the ground; and he prayed, that if it might be, the hour might pass from him. And he saith: Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee: remove this chalice from me; but not what I will, but what thou wilt.
Let’s remember the broken-hearted and remember, too, seafarers, far from home, and the Apostleship of the Sea who take care of them in port.
It was an odd interim, as the bright green of summer shifted to an autumn russet of dropping November leaves. ‘T’ could feel it; pushing the second half of his life (in human terms), the joints and ligaments of legs and back definitely had a preferential option for warmer seasons and balmier climes. Having only recently returned from the fruitless foray in sunny Southern California, he wryly thought, No wonder there’s so many people out there, with weather like that; nearly every day mild and blue with a fresh western breeze off the sea. And, oddly, because as an Ossyrian he had genetic inhibitions protecting him from thoughts of a critical nature; it doesn’t seem fair…followed by, I wonder if that’s why so many of them are good looking, and healthy…and complacent? He did a fast mental head scratch, wondering at his own lack of charity (or was it envy??) and reflected on the many times during his short stay in that enchanted land that he had met with the various types of human suffering and weakness – with attendant courageous or cowardly response – that characterised so much of life on the strange planet called Earth. People really do seem to be more or less the same the world over…yet, at the same time, no two are alike. ‘T’ laughed at the absurd paradox and went to fetch the Chihuahuas.
‘Hey guys, let’s go down to the beach!’ ‘T’ beamed. Ajax immediately barked an enthusiastic response, though (if the truth be told), he would have preferred the Margate pavement with its amazing cacophony of smells; rotting food rooted out of skips by gangster sea gulls, human detritus of innumerable kind, but, above all, the near-infinite trace of canine cousins messaging each other in an olfactory universe several times more complex than the paltry human internet. Still…the beach did have seaweed and the occasional dead dog fish to provide amusement. Alfie, as anxious as Ajax to escape the confines of the small flat, merely rolled his liquid black eyes, pretending insouciance. ‘T’, a recent convert to the love of salty seas (the home planet, of course, had no large bodies of water), had returned from California a positive fanatic, and Alfie loved to tease him. ‘I’d rather go on a parakeet safari,’ the tricolour Chihuahua beamed, and yawned at ‘T’s apparent frustration. ‘It’s too cold to go up to the park,’ was ‘T’s lame reply (the beach was every bit as cold), ‘and, besides, there’s still too many leaves on the trees to get a good spot on a parakeet.’ That was quite true and Alfie knew it; he had only been teasing. Why do I enjoy teasing the boss? Raisin-coloured eyes narrowed in thought; Are all of us slowly going native?
The soldier who survives the war may suffer over and over again, in pain physical or mental. A friend told us of her father, a Great War amputee, enduring years of agony from his phantom wound.
His fellow Welshman, the artist and poet David Jones, would be taken back to the trenches by a sudden noise, a slammed door, a dropped walking stick, the rumble of thunder. ‘The memory of it is like a disease.’¹
Or the phantom pain beneath the scars of a ravaged soul.
Jones wrote in In Parenthesis about his Sergeant Major’s rifle instruction:
Marry it man! Marry it!
Cherish her, she’s your very own.
Coax it man coax it–it’s delicately and ingeniously made
–it’s an instrument of precision–it costs us tax-payers,
money–I want you men to remember that.
Fondle it like a granny–talk to it–consider it as you would
Which matters more, the soldier or the weapon, the precision instrument forged by industry?
¹Thomas Dilworth: David Jones and the Great War, London, Enitharmon Press, 2012, p204.
(Image from Pinterest)
After the euphoria and rejoicing of All Saints, we contemplate, in today’s Feast, the many souls who have gone before us. We are confronted with the reality of death. Yet, today’s readings, which are often chosen at funerals, give us great cause for hope: we are told that the Lord will destroy death for ever, and there will be no more mourning or sadness. Isaiah prophesies this in the Old Testament, and St. Paul confirms it in the New: Christ destroyed death by dying for sinful people. He did this because of His great love for us.
The Gospel gives us an example of this great love. Jesus raises a young man who has died, thus turning mourning into rejoicing. St. Luke (7:11-18)tells us that Jesus gives the young man back to his mother, who is a widow. Without her son, she would have had no-one to provide for her and protect her. This shows Jesus’ respect for a type of people who were helpless in that society: God insisted on kindness to orphans and widows, for they were all too often overlooked. This tells us that Jesus sympathises with and mourns with those who mourn. In another place, we are told that He wept for His friend Lazarus, who had died. (John 11)
Yes, but what about all the suffering and untimely death in the world today? Where is God and His sympathy in all this? I believe that He would be close to all who mourn if they would let Him into their hearts, and let the words of His Scriptures comfort them. Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine in His Incarnation, and He endured all the suffering humans endure in His Passion. So, He is still beside those who suffer today, suffering with them, as He was beside the widow of Naim.
And what is a merciful heart? … The heart’s burning for all creation, for human beings, for birds and animals, and for demons, and everything there is. At the recollection of them and at the sight of them his eyes gush forth with tears owing to the force of the compassion which constrains his heart, so that, as a result of its abundant sense of mercy, the heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or examine any harm or small suffering of anything in creation.
For this reason he offers up prayer with tears at all times, even for irrational animals, and for the enemies of truth, and for those who harm him, for their preservation and being forgiven … as a result of the immense compassion infused in his heart without measure – like God’s.
– Isaac of Nineveh
Thérèse was born in 1873, before Pius X encouraged Holy Communion for younger children; as a teenager she had to seek permission to receive the sacrament on major feast days. Her sister Marie prepared her each time as she had done for her first communion.
‘I remember once she talked about suffering, telling me that I probably would not walk that path, but if I did, the Good God would always carry me like a child …
‘Soon after my First Communion, I made another retreat for my Confirmation. I prepared with great care to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14), not understanding why people paid little attention to the reception of this sacrament of Love. Usually there was one day’s retreat before Confirmation but as the Bishop could not come on the date set, I had the consolation of two days of solitude. To give us something to do, our teacher took us to mount Cassin where I gathered handfuls of moon daisies for Corpus Christi. Ah ! how joyful my soul was ! like the apostles I was happy to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2,1-4) I was overjoyed at the thought of soon becoming a perfect Christian, and especially of having for eternity the mark of the mysterious cross which the bishop would trace on my forehead … I felt the gentle breeze that the prophet Elijah felt on Mount (1Kings 19,11-13)
‘That day I received the strength to suffer, for soon afterward my soul’s martyrdom began… After these lovely, unforgettable feasts, my life went back to normal – that is to say, back to boarding school which was so painful for me. I was forced to live with girls who were very different, dissipated, not wanting to keep to the rule, and it made me quite unhappy.’
Mont Cassin is now the site of two World War II cemeteries, one German, the other Commonwealth. St Desir cemeteries
These men were forced to live and die with others who were very different, and if not dissipated, certainly would have preferred not to be under King’s Regulations.
Reader, pray for them.
Saint Therese, pray for them.
What is it like to use the psalms for prayer every day and many times a day? By God’s grace, my experience of praying the psalms daily now stretches over nearly four decades. I shall try to say a little about what I have learned during this time.
For me, the psalms are one of the chief means by which I’m able to fulfil the call I received from God so many years ago. How is this so?
Some personal background seems necessary here: I was a “cradle Catholic”, who was taught her faith and who received the Sacraments in the way that was customary at the time. I went to Mass and said my prayers, but without much grasp of what was behind all this. And had any choice been available to me, I am sure I’d have chosen to leave the Church sometime in my teens.
It came, then, as a huge re-ordering of my existence when, in early adulthood, some seeds of belief that had been dormant in me began to put forth shoots. Circumstances at that time conspired to give me a desire to explore my faith – and I did. This exploration marked the beginning of my serious practice of Catholicism. I received the gift of faith in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit; also the gift of faith in the Church as bearer of truth for humanity. And people! People were very much part of this conversion – humanity loomed large. I developed a hunger to be present to suffering humanity in a deeper way than was possible to me within the constraints of what was then a career in classical ballet. How could I bring Christ to birth in the world? I had received the grace of conversion, and I longed to be instrumental in that grace reaching others. I wanted to be everywhere and present to everyone, on the deepest possible level.
I began to look at religious orders. I gradually realised that it was through prayer that my intense desire to be everywhere and present to everyone could be fulfilled. This faith in the power of prayer was another great gift from this period in my life. Eventually, monastic life, with its strong emphasis on the apostolate of prayer, seemed the way forward for me.
Now, having been a nun for close to forty years, how have my aspirations to be present to suffering humanity panned out? There are many aspects to a monastic vocation, but I’ve found that it is chiefly within the Opus Dei – the Divine Office – that I find that I can be everywhere and with everyone. That is because of the prayer book that’s used – which is the Psalter.