We have been looking at different aspects of Christian vocation these last few days. Yesterday Bishop Erik Varden pointed us to the daily sacrifices through which we unite ourselves to the great Sacrifice of Christ. The daily sacrifices don’t have to be unpleasant: Mrs Turnstone often remarks: ‘I thought being a parent would stop when they left home.’ No! There is another generation who need love, care, support. We are not, thank God, the sort to retire to the golf course or prolonged tours on floating cruise cities, all needs catered for. there are family and friends on terra firma whose needs and gifts we are called to share.
I was recently reading the thoughts of some American religious sisters on their vocations.
Sister Carol Zinn Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia said, ‘I am a sister until I draw my last breath, not until I can’t physically do my ministry anymore. Structures always follow relationships. Structures don’t come first, relationships do, whatever the structure will look like, it will respond to the relationships.’
We will be good parents, good grandparents, good friends, when we take care of the relationships. Which reminds me of my Resolution to write a couple of letters or emails each day in Lent to friends or relations I’ve perhaps been a little neglectful of lately. A structure conceived to support relationships.
As we join with other Christians around the world for the Week of Prayer we pray that our hearts will be open to see and hear the many ways in which racism continues to destroy lives, and to discern the steps we can take as individuals and communities to heal the hurts and build a better future for everyone.
Day 6 Walking humbly in the way
Scripture reminds us that we cannot separate our love for God from our love for others. We love God when we feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner. When we care for and serve “one of the least of these,” we are caring for and serving Christ himself.
But we are called to go beyond giving or serving from a position of power, where we maintain our status above the person to whom we are ministering. How are we to emulate Jesus who, though he was Lord of all, became truly the servant of all? What is power, and how are we to use it and to share it in the work of God?
God calls us to honour the sacredness and dignity of each member of God’s family. Caring for, serving and loving others reveals not who they are, but who we are. As Christians, we must be unified in our responsibility to love and care for others, as we are cared for and loved by God. In so doing, we live out our shared faith through our actions in service to the world and we find our true calling as servants of the Servant King.
Yours are the power and the glory.
Yet we see your greatest greatness when you stoop to serve.
Creator, give us the power to be powerless
and bestow on us the dignity
of the servant rich in love.
Lord of the power and the glory,
you became for us the servant of all.
Show us the power and the glory of servanthood
and enable us to minister to your world
according to its needs and our abilities.
Where in your personal life could you bring blessing by yielding power?
How could the churches in your community share power to become more effective in service?
Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of realities that are unseen (Hebrews 11: 1-2).
As I ponder this wonderful line from the Letter to the Hebrews and dwell with it, I begin to relearn what faith is about, what the word means. I think back to the time in my life when faith came alive for me. It happened over a period of some months when I was a very young adult. There were stages to this, and the first was that it gradually came home to me that I didn’t know whether I believed in God or not – indeed, I wasn’t even sure what it meant to say that I was a Christian. I saw that although I was attending church on Sundays I did so only because as an infant I had been carried to church, and ever since then I had not been given a choice in the matter. But I could see clearly by that time that this was not good enough. ‘Either figure out what this church business is all about,’ I said to myself, ‘or give it up. But don’t go on like this, going to church as if you were a believer when you are actually clueless.’ So I decided to give my religion one last chance. (Actually, I had never even given it a first chance, but in my habitual arrogance I was not really thinking clearly). Thus the second stage in my relationship to faith began: I undertook to study the tenets of Catholic belief and to find out what it really meant to be a Christian.
I can see now that this undertaking was itself prompted by God because otherwise it wouldn’t even have occurred to me: there was little true religious belief present in my heart. Indeed, my ‘faith’ at that time, was faith in the mores and (false) promises of fulfilment offered by our secular culture. My faith was also faith in myself, rather than in God. But there was at least a pinch of true faith mixed in with the false; I did, after all, give some sort of homage to the idea that ‘this church business’ might have something worthwhile to offer and I would do well to have a look and see if I could find it. But, at bottom, I must confess, I thought that my study would end with me dusting off my hands and becoming a completely secular non-believer, pursuing, as did so many of my peers, the allurements of pleasure and materialism which popular culture’s media-driven propaganda constantly advertised.
But the Lord had something else in mind, clearly, and he who takes the initiative in love, also responds to our smallest overture (and my overture was extremely small) with an overwhelming display of love. As my study of Christianity continued, some of my smug self-reliance began to give way. I began to face how deeply needy I was on the spiritual level, and how much I needed God. And this, in turn, led me into to a deep interior relationship with the Lord. A whole world was opening up. I found that ‘the existence of realities that are unseen’ were beginning – most wonderfully – to be proved to me. The God, whom I barely knew, treated me like the prodigal daughter and ran to meet me with lavish experiences of joy. At length, not only did I begin to practice my faith with conviction, I also developed an intense desire to give myself to the Lord fully. And that was the genesis of my vocation to be Benedictine nun. Decades have passed since I professed vows as a nun, and it is even more obvious to me today than on my profession day that the unseen realities are the most real realities that exist.
My lectio questions were quickly turning into reasons for joy by now. These reflections reaffirmed that faith – this love-relationship with the unseen God – does indeed guarantee the deepest blessings. Faith is not merely a default setting for the times when the great mysteries of religion loom large. Faith is an all-the-time setting. Faith has positive content: it is the up-and-running relationship between God the Father and me – God, who is wholly mysterious in essence, but who is infinitely and infallibly real, infinitely and infallibly “there,” holding out the blessings that we hope for.
Through this lectio journey, I rediscovered that faith is also the word we use to talk about our relationship with God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who really was seen in his lifetime and now, through the Gospel, shows me the way to the Father and challenges me to see him, that I may see the Father; faith is the word used to talk about the mission of the Church as the mediator of Christ to me in her teaching authority, in the sacraments, and in the union of believers when they gather in his name and among whom Jesus promises to be – and is – present. Finally, faith is something for which I thank God because the word means that God has me and I have him in a relationship of love. Faith, inseparable from love, does guarantee all blessings; it is about the unseen realities, it reveals the existence of them, and has proved to me that they are real.
Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of realities that are unseen (Hebrews 11: 1-2).
We now have a little series of four reflections from Sister Johanna of Minster Abbey, this time on Jesus’ calling of Matthew the tax collector. It is his feastday at the end.
The picture shows two of the tools of the trade. They were brought home by a retiring taxman in England. By the time he retired, IT had replaced flimsy paper and Stationery Office wooden rulers, he dug them out from the bottom of the drawer and brought them home. Over to you, Sister!
And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” And Matthew got up and followed him. (See Matthew 9:9).
The writers of the synoptic Gospels rarely relate the same episode in the same way. One notable exception is the account of the calling of Matthew. The three synoptic writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all tell the story in the briefest way possible. Jesus just turned up at Matthew’s tax office one day, said two words, “Follow me,” (or the Aramaic equivalent) and Matthew did. Immediately.
We know this text so well that its power to astonish us may have worn off. I, in fact, have always found this text a bit skimpy on description, rather un-dramatic and a little flat. I want to know more about the back-story, about Matthew’s state of mind on that day. Consequently, I probably haven’t given the story enough of a chance to talk to me. So I resolve today to slow way down and try to look at this text as though I’ve never seen it before. This is what lectio divina is about: diving down into a text’s deep pool and, through the grace of the Holy Spirit at work, both within the text and within my mind and heart, finding the story’s hidden meaning – and, yes, even its drama. The exercise never disappoints me. I begin, asking for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
The first thing I notice, then, is that Matthew, the tax collector was “sitting” in the tax office. We don’t usually get descriptions of body-language in the New Testament, but a quick flip through the pages of my New Testament confirms what I suspected: in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew’s physical position is given. It must be important I think, but why? Who cares that Mathew’s sitting down?
As I pray about this seemingly insignificant detail, it occurs to me that a sitting person is not only stationary but apt to be quite engaged on the interior level – more so, anyway, than when charging around busily, focusing on accomplishing tasks. Matthew was sitting because his work usually required it; he’d have been at a desk or table, writing, counting money, adding up columns of figures, absorbed in his intellectual work. He was occupied, even preoccupied – presumably not in the mood for a spiritual event of life-changing proportions. He was also doing things that would have been distasteful to a decent human being. Was he a decent human being? Many of the townspeople would have denied it roundly. He was, after all, taking the tax money from his own people who could ill afford to pay it, pocketing a certain percentage of the proceeds, giving the rest to the Romans, and, even more scandalously, turning the screws on those who did not, or could not, pay. But it was part of the job; he had to do it and he did do it. I see him now, sitting, head down, counting, adding up, writing, not making eye contact with anyone, not smiling, brow furrowed in concentration.
I wonder what this was like for Matthew. Matthew was a Jew in the employment of the Romans – the occupying political power. He, like all the Jews, was in a difficult situation. Matthew, however, had figured out how to manipulate the situation to his financial advantage. But at what emotional and social price? Of what use to him, he may well have wondered, was his financial security when he had no friends? For any friend of the Romans, anyone who voluntarily did their dirty business for them – and particularly, any Jew who did the Romans’ dirty business – was doubly scorned by the other Jews. Matthew was a traitor. No one liked the tax collectors. In Matthew’s case, he was probably intensely hated. But this was a normal working day for Matthew, differing little from every other working day. He was sitting down, adding up figures, getting on with it. Or was it really a normal day for him?
Those who’ve read my posts before know I’m apt to leave certain things dangling for twenty-four hours so that the reader has time to pray over the text and perhaps ask questions of the Holy Spirit. I hope you will come back tomorrow for the continuation of our meditation.
Pope Francis visited the Poor Clares, the Franciscan enclosed sisters, in Assisi on the World Day of the Poor, 19 November 2021. The report below is from Vatican News; we can gain some understanding of the contemplative calling, but also a few challenges for our own lives. Happy Feast Day!
Pope Francis asked the Franciscan nuns to pray for the Church so that it may not be corrupted by sin, calling on them to be attentive contemplatives. Pope Francis said attentiveness to the Lord requires having peace of mind, serenity of the heart and serenity of the hands, lest we miss Him when He passes by. It is not watching the world pass by and chatting from a window, but being aware of what is going on with a pure mind, thinking well and not badly of people, he remarked.A “serene heart” implies going back in memory to the origin of religious vocation, to the reason of God’s call, to love and let ourselves be loved.
There is also the serenity of the hands: hands must move not only to pray, but also “to work,” Pope Francis said, recalling St. Paul’s words in his Letter to the Thessalonians: “Whoever does not work, must not eat”.
When mind, heart and hands do what they have to do, consecrated people may find a balance which is “full of love and passion”, making it easy not to miss what the Lord tells us when He passes by.
He pointed to the core of the Poor Clares’ contemplative work: “You carry on your shoulders the problems of the Church, the pains of the Church and also – I dare say – the sins of the Church, our sins, the sins of the bishops, we are all sinful bishops; the sins of the priests; the sins of consecrated souls … And bring them before the Lord”.
The real danger in the Church is not being a sinner, but allowing oneself to be corrupted by sin, to the point of seeing sin as “a normal attitude” and not feeling the need to ask for God’s forgiveness. Pope Francis therefore called on the cloistered nuns to pray that corruption might not affect the Church, stressing that God “only asks our humility to ask for forgiveness.”
Concluding his speech, Pope Francis asked the Poor Clares to think and pray for the elderly, who are often considered “disposable”, for those families struggling to make ends meet so they can bring up their children well, and for young people and children exposed to so many threats and dangers in today’s world.
Finally he asked them to pray for the Church, in particular for priests and bishops so they consider themselves pastors and not “heads of office”.
Sister Johanna of Minster Abbey has been getting to grips with the Gospel of Saint Mark, and that old question, what must I do to inherit eternal life? You’ll find the next few days’ readings well worth spending time with; thank you Sister!
Jesus was setting out on a journey when a man ran up, knelt before him and put this question to him, ‘Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not kill; You shall not commit adultery You shall not steal; You shall not give false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’ And he said to him, ‘Master, I have kept all these since my earliest days.’ Jesus looked steadily at him and he was filled with love for him, and he said, ‘You need to do one thing more. Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth (Mark 10:17-22, translation: New Jerusalem Bible).
Some biblical passages are particularly fertile ground, and for me, the story of the rich young man is one of them.* I find it a haunting tale; it is hard to let go of it; it is always in my mind, always pulling me back to itself. So I want to give in to the pull and return to this story now.
All the synoptic gospels tell the story of the rich young man (see Luke 18:18-23; Matthew 10:16-22; Mark 10:17-22). The reflections for this post will come from my reading of Mark’s account because Mark has some important details that don’t appear in the other accounts. And I’m grateful that Mark’s memory seized on these differences and wouldn’t let them go; his account of the rich young man’s meeting with Jesus has changed the way I view him. Previously, I had found myself reacting strongly against ‘that rich boy,’ as I tended to call him: I wanted to tell him off! Because of Mark, everything’s changed.
So, what does Mark’s story have that is so important? I want to start with something he says at the end of his account; he tells us that Jesus looks at the young man with love (Mk 10: 21). Neither Matthew nor Luke mention this; only Mark. Mark clearly wants us to notice this and so I follow his lead and allow those words to affect me deeply. In fact, I cannot go on; I stop reading. Everything slows down as I allow his phrase to settle in my soul. I try to imagine Jesus’ gaze of love; I become aware that I intensely want Jesus to look at me with love. How wonderful to receive that look–the softening warmth of the eyes, the gentle smile, the lingering gaze, the moments of silence. What has the young man done or said, I want to know, that awakens Jesus’ love? Can the rich young man teach me something about what Jesus is looking for? Can he teach you? Let’s allow these questions to work on us until tomorrow when we will continue our meditation.
* I have written about the story of the rich young man before in these posts (see 7 and 8 December 2020).
You can count on the Plough magazine to have an interesting story to tell. Father Bryce Lungren is a priest and cowboy in Wyoming, a cattle state in America. He set off for seminary and left his boots behind. “When Christ calls, you drop the nets,” he said. Cowboying, he reckoned, was behind him for good. He was mistaken.
His spirituality takes materiality and the natural world seriously, in a way that fits well with the sacramental framework of the Church, which sees earthly things as imbued with divine importance. “I never got much out of the playing-harps-on-a-cloud stuff. Heaven to me looks more like the kind of work I love doing out here.” He continues, “We’re not just spirits trapped in bodies. Our bodies aren’t just something disposable, and our souls are the ‘real deal.’ Our bodies and our souls make us what we are. We aren’t just angels. I guess I’d call my world view, I don’t have a good word for it yet, but I guess I’d call it incarnational.*
‘They are French apricots today, and very good and juicy, so much better than the Spanish,’ said the stallholder in Canterbury market. I bought a pound – half a kilo – and she wrapped them in a brown paper bag.
As I said, ‘Thank you,’ the confluence of the warm sunshine, the brightly coloured fruit, the French text printed on the cardboard trays, the brown paper bag and the swing with which the lady sealed it with a twist, all together transported me back half a century. Almost without thinking I went on: ‘I remember when I was young, walking and hitch-hiking across France to visit a friend. I bought a kilo of apricots and a bottle of water, they kept me going through the mountains.’
‘You would remember that!’ she smiled: I did indeed.
Clement and I were in a group sharing an apartment in the seminary, and he was about to be ordained a missionary priest, I was summoning the courage to depart gracefully, but also to share the joy of his ordination. I was coming to the Massif Central from another ordination in Switzerland, travelling cross-country, a challenge then in France.
I hitched a lift to the border on a quiet road, and it was getting dark when I came upon a railway station that offered a slow train to the South Coast. En marche! as they say. I sat in a pull-down seat in the corridor, wrapped in a blanket, and slept fitfully as the kilometres went by. At Nîmes I slept on a bench until morning. The first bus in my direction was going as far as Alès, a market town, where I bought my kilo of apricots and walked on.
Lifts were few and far between but soon I was in the mountains under the blazing sun, eating my way through the apricots and replenishing the water bottle from wayside springs.
I met a cart drawn by two oxen, going the wrong way for me.
I kept on walking, accepting lifts of one or two kilometres until the bus from the morning overtook me, stopped and took me into Marvejols. The driver’s return journey began from there, but his drive from Alès was off timetable so I had a good ride for free. We shared the last apricots.
The driver showed me the famous statue of the Beast of Gevaudan, a man-eating monster from the time of Louis XV; he also showed me the road to my friend’s village where my arrival in a passing car was greeted by Clement’s family with congratulations and a warm welcome. A day later, two friends of his offered a lift to Paris which I gladly accepted.
This month Clement is celebrating his 50 years as a missionary priest. Let’s give thanks for his faithful service in all that time, and pray that the Synod will point us to ways in which we may all become missionaries, steadfast in the heat of the day, on the hard road; ready to share what we have: apricots, a lift, or the Good News.
Today, Mrs T is gathering damaged apricots from our tree to make jam to share at Christmas time. The BEST apricot jam.
Our third article celebrating Saints Peter and Paul is part of a reflection on his own lived-out vocation from Bishop Edward K Braxton, bishop emeritus of Belleville, Illinois. The whole reflection can be found here, on the National Catholic Reporter website. His book is available from on-line booksellers.
Bear in mind that Peter and Paul were leaders of the early church who took the Good News to all peoples, and who called people of every race to serve the church according to their gifts. See 1 Corinthians 12.
My primary goal was to serve the people of God as a good and faithful priest, and bishop, and to build up the church by helping people to grow in their Catholic identity and education. A phrase I use almost every time I visited a parish was the phrase: “Learn your faith, love your faith, live your faith.” And within that context, part of learning your faith is learning about the dignity and value of every human person, which within that addresses racial prejudice, racism, the dignity, the value of unborn life, the value of the life of a person on death row. If you are doing that, you will see that your faith impels you not to support bias and prejudice or racism.
If you want to invite people of colour into the world of the church, couldn’t some part of it look like them? Yet I am not advocating that you go into churches built by German immigrants and take black paint and spray it all over the saints and angels. I am not proposing anything as simple as that. But there is a reason I chose the cover of my book myself. I wanted to show an Afrocentric Jesus washing the feet of an Afrocentric Peter.
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.