Mary Webb’s illness caused swellings, which eventually distorted her face. But:
There are many to whom all beauty seems denied; they hunger for it dumbly, unconsciously. Is their life to be a stricken tree, colourless and silent? Surely not. The flawless forms and colours of nature are an especial consolation to those who are oppressed by that dark tragedy, deformity of body or unloveliness of face. How deep is the desolation, when a sad soul looks out anxiously, through eyes that cannot reflect its beauty, watching for an answering smile, and meeting only a look of swiftly concealed repulsion! Startled and ill at ease in the ruinous mortal dwelling, reminded of it continually, this soul leads a life of torture. I saw one of these look from her windows and weep bitterly, finding no comfort. Then a voice came in the long sigh of the dawn breeze:–
“I know, inhabitant of eternity, how strait and comfortless your home is. Go out into my garden and forget. The skies are clear; see where I lead out my sidereal flocks! The tall young larches are dreaming of green; there is moonlight in the primrose woods. There is a fit dwelling for you; go, and be at peace.”
She rose and went, and her laugh came back upon the wind. The leaves do not hesitate to finger and kiss any face, however marred, that looks up into their dwelling. No distortion of body frightens the birds, if the heart within loves them.
One flower of germander speedwell may be the magic robe that clothes us with the beauty of earth. It has the same strength of structure, wonder of tint and mystery of shadow as all natural things. Awakened by its minute perfection, the mind … realises that nature’s beauty can never be perfectly grasped.
Ceasing for a time to question and strive, let us dare to be merely receptive.
Pope Emeritus Benedict has contrasted his style with that of Pope Francis,suggesting that he should have got among the people more. Yet Benedict did something radical in this direction when he came out of the Vatican and shared a Christmas meal with homeless people at the Sant’Egidio Community. (Amazingly, protocol demanded that the Pope should not be seen eating!)
He told the gathering:
It is a moving experience for me to be with you, to be with Jesus’ friends, because Jesus especially loves people who are suffering, people in difficulty, and wants them to become his brothers and sisters. Thank you for this possibility! I am very glad and I thank all those who prepared the meal, lovingly and competently I was truly aware of the good cooking, congratulations! and I also thank those who served the food.
At lunch I heard of sorrowful events full of humanity and also stories of love rediscovered here at Sant’Egidio: the experiences of elderly, homeless or disabled people, emigrants, gypsies, individuals with financial problems or other difficulties who are all, in one way or another, sorely tried by life. I am here with you to tell you that I am close to you and love you, and that you and your affairs are not far from my thoughts but rather at the centre and in the heart of the Community of believers, hence also in my heart.
With the words of St John Chrysostom I would like to remind each one: “Consider you have become a priest of Christ, giving with your own hand not flesh but bread, and not Blood, but a cup of water” (Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 42,3). What riches are offered to life by God’s love expressed in real service to our brothers and sisters who are in need! Like St Lawrence, a Deacon of the Church of Rome, when the Roman magistrates of the time sought to intimidate him, to make him handover the Church’s treasure, he pointed to the poor of Rome as the true treasure of the Church. We can make St Lawrence’s gesture our own and say that you poor people really are the Church’s treasure.
Much of the world celebrates Corpus Christi today. Here is another reflection from the early Anglican Franciscan, Fr Andrew SDC.
I have often thought of the bread we use in Holy Communion. First of all it is a blade growing in the field, and then part of a golden cornfield over which winged birds fly and amongst which the poppies and the wild flowers grow. Then it is plucked and subjected to the action of fire and water and kneaded into bread, and then it is laid upon God’s Table, waiting for the Holy Spirit to become his means of grace.
it seems such a parable of our life. We are not really put to the highest use until we have been plucked out of the world, ground and kneaded and given to God to do just what he likes with us, even as He gave Himself for us.
I’ve just read a new blogger, Kate. Have a look at her writing about suffering here .
The same day I had seen a man in town, offering ‘prayer for healing’ invitation cards. I was not up for a theological discussion at the time. Not that I wouldn’t mind a spot of healing. I have long-running pain after an assault. I have tried therapies from surgery to acupuncture. After being told by one expert doctor that he sees plenty of people like me who ‘by all we know should not have pain after so much time’ and that he could do no more, I try to carry the cross and get on with life. Very Lenten? Perhaps.
Kate offers a well-considered list of responses to long-term illness. The ideas make good sense theologically and psychologically. I would just add ‘count your blessings’.
Counting blessings – or acknowledging one worth recalling each day – ought to be part of anyone’s examination of conscience. I can always find at least one blessing, however small, to be grateful for. Thus my daughter’s eyes alighted on the snowdrops outside our door when she visited the day I wrote this: her delight was mine.
Remember the man by the library. I could have challenged him. What would healing mean for my condition? God taking away the pain or transforming it? How many go to Lourdes and return with their physical problem as it was in the beginning? I think I have to accept the possibility that the Lord can transform the pain, but also that accepting it may be slowing me down enough to stop and stare a little.
I leave you with the first heading on Kate’s list of ways to deal with chronic illness: Talk to God. Check out the rest of her post!
The Rood at Our Lady and the English Martyrs at Cambridge expresses in concrete prayer many of the ideas Kate and I touch on: suffering transformed, sacraments, creation, blessings.
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.