Tag Archives: suffering

20 November: Inter-galactic Discoveries XIII, The Sands of the Sea.

 

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?

TJH

 

 

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November 10: Sacrifice and War: Pain and David Jones.

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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
a friend–

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.

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2 November: All Souls

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(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.

FMSL

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October 5: A Merciful Heart

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.
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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

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1 October: Feast of Saint Thérèse

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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.

MMB.

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31 July: The Psalms as personal prayer: I

Psalms

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.

SJC

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July 25, John Cassian IX: The Power of God’s Word

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As I write I am painfully aware of a friend who has confided in me about struggles she has in the workplace with employers and colleagues.  She faces injustice daily, and only by dint of dedication to her profession and commitment to those who work under her does she remain in her present situation.

I dare say she, and many others, could read what I have written about “owning” our problems and say, “I wish my boss or my colleague would do that!”  There are many such situations in our world where the Christian must somehow negotiate webs of deceit and structures of sin.  How does John Cassian’s teaching apply to such situation?

It is important to note that Cassian’s teaching is not geared to the political and social sphere but to the personal and spiritual sphere.  And so, I think we find the answer to this question in Cassian’s sense of the power of God’s Word, and his repeated urgings to us to “remember the cross.”   He says, “Thus at every moment we should cultivate the earth of our heart with the gospel plough – that is, with the continual remembering of the Lord’s cross”.

Cassian has changed the metaphor for the heart here from that of the vessel to that of a field.  The gospel works on this field like a powerful plough.  The continual remembrance of the Lord’s cross is the essence of the gospel, and is the power that eventually transforms us like a plough transforms a field.

It is worth lingering here a moment.  Imagine the field, the great lumps and clods of dark earth, and the plough’s work of digging and turning the earth, back and forth, over and over.  It is an image for the spiritual life that I have returned to many times over the years, whenever I feel that my inner “field” is being ploughed over once again.  I find it very easy to relate to this, and when I remember the cross and the gospel plough I feel the return of hope amid an experience that might otherwise feel as though anything good I had done was being destroyed.

For Cassian, the Word of God – epitomized by the remembrance of the cross – is alive.  It has its own intrinsic power to work within and strengthen our hearts if only we give ourselves over to it.  I cannot change others. I cannot do away with structures of sin in the world.  I can only change myself, but by doing this, I do make an effective contribution to the process of dismantling sin’s structures in the world. Through the continual remembrance of the Lord’s cross, personal change becomes possible.  Then, it becomes possible, too, to experience the truth of the words of Karl Rahner, with which we began our reflections, “The Christian faith professes that God is not merely the God far off….  God wills to be, in self-communication, the ‘content’ and future of man.”

SJC

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8 June, Year of Mercy: Compassion has everything to do with God.

The compassion of Francis: he prays for water for his thirsty guide and a spring wells up.

mercylogoReligion and mercy have often spearheaded protests against injustice and violence as well as providing the impetus for social action. Seeking to get rid of misfortune and innocent suffering by force [as Marxism] did not just fail but caused intense suffering and persecution for millions, it became Lenin’s world, with the death of God paving the way for superman. It is reported that on his deathbed Lenin regretted the cruelty and bloodshed of his well-intentioned revolution: I have deluded myself. Without doubt, it was necessary to free the oppressed masses. However, our methods resulted in other oppressions and gruesome massacres. You know I am deathly ill; I feel lost in an ocean of blood formed by countless victims. This was necessary to save our Russia, but it is too late to turn back. We would need ten Francis of Assisi.”

Germany’s National Socialism praised whatever made you strong; lauding I did it my way! The impact of this was self-centred living, marginalising and excluding. Words like mercy and pity were no longer fashionable. Pity took on a negative connotation – and yet, experiences of compassion and pity remained strong and evident; with many choosing to follow such ways.

The cries for sympathy are by no means always unheard – even though the actual words mercy and pity are not much used. We are disturbed and alarmed by so much inhumanity and cruelty; natural disasters like earthquakes and floods evoke a response, when charity giving is most generous. Compassion, entering by choice into the sufferings of others, is doing well and temporarily, brings us more together – compassion is still around, though under new names.

There is much more than sentiment here; we are moved by the passion in compassion; hearing the cry of the poor enough to be determined to respond. Perfeopen handct [universal] justice is not achievable in this world, which is why Genesis tells us that it is not for us to decide what is good – not a prohibition, but we are not big enough to do it. When we decide what is good for us, there will always be exceptions, whereas God’s justice is universal mercy: The father of mercy… 2 Corinthians 1.3.

There are numerous victims of natural disasters where support depends entirely on compassion – thankfully such compassion is not in short supply. The presence of God, the father of mercy, is readily detected here.
pain and innocent suffering are as old as humankind, and all religions ask why and try to answer; asking for deliverance from pain and the strength to endure. How can we believe in a merciful God in the heart of this? Can suffering and mercy live together in a positive way? What does the sermon on the Mount mean by blessed are the merciful?

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May 18: Inter-Galactic Discoveries: III

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The three agents from the distant Ossyrian Confederation- one disguised as a middle-aged human and the others as a pair of frisky young Chihuahuas- had chosen an animal shelter near the Kentish seaside town of Margate as a likely locale for initiating their crucial research into the nature of that peculiarly human virtue of hope. That first foray had seemed to be an unmitigated disaster as a maddened Mastiff had shunted any semblance of virtue aside in a slobbering attempt to maul the diminutive Alfie who, though standing his ground (he knew perfectly well that the mesh separating him from the Mastiff was sound), nevertheless returned the insults of barked violence in an angry cacophony that would soon have had all three Ossyrian agents escorted to the nearest exit.

Just as all had seemed lost, Alfie’s wing man (wing dog??) Ajax focused the disheartened group’s attention in a different direction. ‘Look over there!’ he signalled, and – moving out of sight of the doomed Mastiff – the group quietly approached the object of Ajax’s sudden interest.

The elderly woman bore all of the signs of a human at the far end of a difficult life. Dishevelled white hair, sallow complexion over deep crevices etched by relentless work, worry, loneliness, and a multitude of ‘aches and pains’, along with a musty unwashed smell readily apparent to the dogs; all mumbled the same tale of poverty and neglect. ‘She’s been with us for nearly a year,’ the bright-eyed shelter employee said as he opened the door of an enclosure reeking with the smell of fresh antiseptic, ‘and soon, I’m afraid…she’ll have to be put down.’

Ignoring him, the woman stepped inside and paused, gazing at the small cross-breed cowering in a corner, visibly shaking with anxiety. ‘Be careful, ma’am! She’s been known to bite.’ The woman chose to ignore the warning and approached the small dog before pausing, once again, only a few feet before the terrified creature. Not much to recommend yourself, she thought wryly…and it was true. Though kept clean by the kindly employees of the shelter, the cross-breed’s face was disfigured by a pronounced under-bite and her matted grey fur was mottled by what appeared to be bald spots of angry scar tissue.

Noting the woman’s interest, the employee sadly explained, ‘This poor little lady was seriously abused by her first owner; all over now, but those scars you see, well, they go pretty deep…if you know what I mean?’ Oh! I do…I do know what you mean… the woman sighed and, scooping up the ravaged mongrel, ignored the sharp nip to her forearm as she enveloped it in a deep embrace, lightly stroking its mottled pelt.

To the stunned amazement and utter delight of the employees at the animal shelter the adoption of the mongrel, who would proudly respond to the name ‘Mitzi’ for the rest of her life, proceeded smoothly. As she and her new owner were escorted to the shelter’s exit and handed the complementary packet of doggie necessities many of the carers had tears in their eyes but others were smiling…

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Awaiting the fish and chips – but sans dogs. NAIB

The three Ossyrian agents sat in reflective silence; each savouring the delightful taste of his fish and chips eaten outdoors with a view of Margate’s small harbour. ‘Batter loaded with calories, enough hydrogenated fat in the oil to block the Canterbury Road, and salt on the chips to send one’s blood pressure off the chart…but oh so goooooooood!’ Alfie chirped. The others merely smacked their lips in hearty agreement; Ossyrian cuisine had nothing on this!

‘T’? Something really important happened this morning at the animal shelter…but I’m not sure what it was…’ Ajax’s honest confusion had, at first, been shared by all and the lunchtime debriefing had been punctuated by long, if thoughtful, silences. ‘I think…I think I’m beginning to understand,’ ‘T’ signalled, ‘though I have only read of it in terrestrial books as what just occurred would have been impossible in the home world.’ ‘What is it?’ Alfie’s expressive ears trembled with anticipation even though the conversation was entirely telepathic.

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‘See,’ ‘T’ began, ‘in the Confederation there is no injustice and almost no suffering. When suffering is encountered it is simply cured, as if it were a kind of medical condition, and that is the way it has been for many thousands of revolutions around the inner sun.’ He sighed, ‘There is nothing wrong with that…but here…here suffering is a very real thing and must be dealt with…or not.’ Remembering the tragic Mastiff, the two Chihuahuas glanced knowingly at each other as ‘T’ continued, ‘The old woman and Mitzi the cross-breed mongrel had each suffered and each recognized a kinship in the other. Denial would have resulted in judgement and judgement in alienation leading to rejection…and further suffering. But the woman had learned a marvellous lesson! Suffering can also function as a mercylogokind of doorway…a doorway, which, when passed through in the company of another, leads to a bright kind of love forged in fearless, though tender, knowing. The humans had to invent a special word for this that is, at the same time the highest and the lowest of all of the many types of love. It is called compassion and where this type of love exists nothing is ever able to undermine, much less extinguish, hope…because compassion flourishes precisely in that place where hope had previously seemed impossible.’

The Chihuahuas, having swallowed the last few chips and licked the last bit of salt and oil from the throw-away Styrofoam plates, nodded their dawning understanding; suddenly slightly envious of the tear glinting in the corner of ‘T’s eye.

(to be continued)

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May 5: The nail that pierced has become the key to unlock the door: III.

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The nail that pierced has become the key to unlock the door: III.

St. Bernard

mercylogoToday, let us consider an interpretation of St. Bernard’s words that differs from the one we have been thinking about in the two previous posts.

Perhaps we are going though a very painful time right now.  We may have read St. Bernard’s words and felt instantly that the “nail” to which he refers is not the one piercing the hand of the crucified Lord.  This is a nail that pierces our own heart.

This nail is the nail of our own sufferings – sufferings which feel too heavy to carry.  These are sufferings that make us fear that we will not only collapse under them, but we will never rise again.  The pain is too great.  We feel shaken to our core.  There seems to be no way forward.

Why is this happening to us, we wonder?  What is God trying to say?  Why is he allowing this?

The mystery of suffering is very deep indeed, and I cannot pretend to be able to plumb its depths.  Yet, I can affirm from my own experiences that God’s mercy encompasses sufferings.  How?   Without in any way claiming to say all there is to say about this profound subject, I will offer just a few thoughts.

Perhaps, the first trace we might find of God’s mercy in times of suffering is that he sustains us in faith.  Faith is always a gift – and never more so than in times of suffering.  We may not understand why we are suffering in this way, but, through his grace, we are able to maintain some kind of relationship with God – we don’t just drop him, despite the fact that we may not be feeling very devout or prayerful.  His grace keeps us “in touch” with him.  We may be angry, or despondent, or frightened, or any number of other things.  But we still hang on to him.  And he hangs on to us – although this may be difficult to detect.

Second, by means of his merciful grace, we are learning to wait.  We wait for the answers to come.  We wait for the new life to emerge.  We wait for the pain to subside.  We wait for God to teach us whatever he means to teach us through this pain.  I remember asking a priest why the process of healing seemed (and was) so slow.  He said, wisely, that God usually works within the usual human processes and time-frames.  Time is needed for growth and healing.  There is no “fast-track” here.  We wait.  This knowledge was helpful to me at the time, but still, there is no sense in which this is an easy wait.

Finally – or, better, gradually – and in God’s time, we begin to discover that through this experience of suffering, a new “door” is opening into a new depth of relationship with God.  All the pain has not been meaningless, and it has not been fruitless.  The nail has unlocked a door which could not have been opened but for the pain we have experienced.  The very experiences that we thought would be our undoing, have, in fact, shown themselves to be of crucial importance in our life with God and with people.  They have been key experiences, full of meaning and life, without which we would not have advanced in our relationship with the Lord.  “The nail that pierced has become the key to unlock the door.”

SJC.

St Mary Magdalene, Davington. MMB

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