Tag Archives: weakness

3 August: A Gift of Love and Sorrow, III.

Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder between Earth and Heaven.

Yesterday we looked at the beginning of the sketch of the rich young man drawn by Mark (10:17-22). We noted that, even before the young man says a word, his behaviour shows him to be a person of courage, humility and independence. We saw that there is much to learn from him, much to admire and love already. Today, we will listen to him speak. His first words are: Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (Mark 10:18)

I stop reading and let that question stand in my mind. Slowly I am filled with awe. He has asked the most important question he could have asked. It is more important than almost any other question imaginable, because almost any other question is a question about this world, and therefore is a question about what we must one day give up when we die. The young man, on the other hand, has the maturity to ask the famous double-barrelled question: given that I am alive, how do I live in this world in such a way as to attain eternal life in the next? The young man has already seen that our stay in this world is short and goals pertaining only to this short life are shallow. Death is the one certainty–he has acknowledged this, even though youth does not usually grasp this nettle with its soft hands. He knows he cannot do as most people do–deny that he is going to die. Jesus hears all these shades of meaning in the young man’s question and must have rejoiced. The very question, in fact, is the question that Jesus is about. Its answer is to found in the Incarnation itself. It becomes clear to me now as I turn these thoughts over and over in my mind that the young man’s question is not an idle one but is coming from a deep place. What an exceptional human being, I think to myself.

But what does Jesus do? For the first time in the story, Jesus speaks. And he is surprisingly challenging. As often happens, his actions are directly opposite to what I think I’d have done. I would have perhaps fallen all over myself to affirm the young man. “What a great question!” I’d probably have enthused with a big smile. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be smiling here. Something seems to be eating him. Rather than affirm the young man, Jesus seems testy. He asks the young man why he calls him good, when goodness is the attribute of God alone (Mk.10:19).

This has always been a difficult remark for me to understand. It sounds as though Jesus doesn’t want to be called ‘good,’ which would be sort of crazy. But suddenly I think that maybe this is not so at all, maybe Jesus has no objection to being called ‘good.’ Maybe what he means is that he wants the young man to explain why he is attributing to Jesus a goodness that is usually attributed to God alone. He wants to know what the young man means by it. We will say more about this in tomorrow’s post.

In fact, the rich young man does not rise to Jesus’ challenge and explain why he used the word ‘good’ in his address of Jesus. And Jesus has other things on his mind, more important to him, and doesn’t linger over the issue. Instead, he seems to see that that question is too much for the young man and so he quickly moves on to his main point. He is still challenging. He remarks that in giving the Ten Commandments to humanity, God has already given us everything needed to inherit eternal life. The question “what should I do to inherit eternal life” doesn’t really need to be asked, Jesus implies; the answer is obvious. Keep the Commandments. You know them.

Then the young man says something very unusual. He claims that he has kept the Commandments from his earliest days (Mark 10:24). I am astonished: the young man is not conscious of any wrong-doing in relation to the Commandments.

As I mull this, I recall that others whom Jesus met and healed during his public ministry are conscious of personal, moral weakness and sinfulness, conscious of wrongdoing, and some have even experienced demonic possession. These intensely painful wounds of body, soul or character, however, actually function in a positive way in relation to those who suffer them; they draw Jesus’ mercy and compassion, they enable the suffering individual to encounter Jesus on the deepest possible level. Our young man in Mark, on the other hand, confidently declares “I have kept all the commandments from my youth.” He is, seemingly, perfect.

How does this strike you? And what does it make you think when you reflect on your own experience of woundedness and moral weakness? Let’s give this some time and return tomorrow for more.

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10 October, Month of Mission, humbly at their service.

door st Maurice

The Month of Mission gives us another chance to reflect on the Martyrs of Algeria, beatified on December 8 last year. The Martyrs’ Door at the Abbey of Saint Maurice, Switzerland, unites the names of Bishop Pierre Claverie and Mohamed Bouchikhi, his driver and friend, who died with him in a bomb attack. We should remember that many Muslims, including imams, were also killed by the fundamentalist rebels.

We share part of a reflection by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, Missionary of Africa, taken from the February 2019 White Fathers magazine.

I knew them all … The four Missionaries of Africa who were martyred at the town of Tizi-Ouzou were all very different: Alain Dieulangard, involved in the charismatic movement; Charles Deckers, practical, adapting well to local conditions; Jean Chevillard, a born leader; Christian Chessel, the young intellectual.

They were nevertheless united, for they had all drunk from the same source: the instructions that Cardinal Lavigèrie had given to the Missionaries of Africa: love those to whom one has been sent, make an effort to learn their language and speak it well, get to know and appreciate their traditions and customs, show respect for their religious beliefs, put oneself humbly at their service in all sorts of ways – all of these aspects of the spirit of Lavigèrie could be found in these four men, each one in his own way. The testimonies of both Christians and Muslims confirm this.

It can be added to this that all four were deeply spiritual persons, men of prayer, who wanted to serve the Lord and not their own interests. This is why they felt very much at ease within the project of the Church of Algeria which Bishop Claverie described in the following way: “We are, and we want to be, missionaries of God’s love, that love which we have discovered in Jesus Christ. This love, infinitely respectful of human beings, does not impose itself, does not impose anything in fact, bringing no force to bear on consciences or hearts. With gentleness, and by its very presence, it frees whatever is bound in chains, it reconciles that which is torn apart, it raises up that which is crushed, brings new life where there was no hope and no strength”.

In a reflection written one month before his death Christian Chessel tried to provide a synthesis of this approach in what he called “Mission in weakness”. “To recognize, welcome, and accept one’s own weakness would seem to be a necessary, inevitable, preliminary step,” he wrote, “especially for a missionary”. This allows one to forge with those men and women to whom one has been sent relations characterized by an absence of power, or, according to another favourite expression of Christian, “by the language of discreta caritas”.

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3 October, the Franciscans come to Mount Alvernia, VI: a wise peasant.

strasb.palm (270x393)

Francis was not the first to ride humbly, on an ass.

On that night within the wood, his companions, sith they were awake and were come to hear and mark what he did, saw and heard him, with tears and cries, devoutly beseeching God to have mercy upon sinners. Then was he seen and heard to weep with a loud voice over the Passion of Christ, as though he saw it with his own eyes. On that self same night they beheld him praying with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross, for a great space uplifted and floating above the earth, and surrounded by a cloud of glory, And so in such holy exercises he passed the whole night through without sleep.

And thereafter in the morning, his companions, being ware that through the fatigues of the night, which he had passed without sleep, Saint Francis was much weakened in body and could but ill go on his way afoot, went to a poor peasant of those parts, and begged him, for the love of God, to lend his ass for Brother Francis, their Father, that could not go afoot. Hearing them make mention of Brother Francis, he asked them: “Are ye of the brethren of that brother of Assisi, of whom so much good is spoken?” The brothers answered: “Yes.” 

Then the good man, with great diligence and humble devotion, made ready the ass, and brought it to Saint Francis, and with great reverence let him mount thereon, and they went on their way; and he with them, behind his ass. And when they had gone on a little way, the peasant said to Saint Francis: “Tell me, art thou Brother Francis of Assisi?” Replied Saint Francis: “ Yea.” “Try then,” said the peasant, “to be as good as thou art of all folk held to be, seeing that many have great faith in thee; and therefore, I admonish thee that in thee there be naught save what men hope to find therein.”

Hearing these words, Saint Francis thought no scorn to be admonished by a peasant, nor said within himself: “What beast is this doth admonish me?” as many would say now-a-days, that wear the cowl ; but straightway he threw himself from off the ass upon the ground, and kneeled him down before him, and kissed his feet, and thus humbly thanked him for that he had deigned thus lovingly to admonish him. Then the peasant, together with the companions of Saint Francis, with great devotion lifted him from the ground and set him on the ass again, and they went on their way.

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September 16, Brownings XIII: Life is a condition of the soul.

elizabeth's rose
“And altogether, I may say that the earth looks the brighter to me in proportion to my own deprivations. The laburnum trees and rose trees are plucked up by the roots—but the sunshine is in their places, and the root of the sunshine is above the storms.
What we call Life is a condition of the soul, and the soul must improve in happiness and wisdom, except by its own fault. These tears in our eyes, these faintings of the flesh, will not hinder such improvement.”*

london towers clouds
London of 1846 looked rather different to what lies under the stormy sky see here. Elizabeth’s house would have been behind the towers to the left, Robert lived a few miles away to our left; the trains that made travelling easier for him to visit her, and the penny post, were new technology then; our couple were bang up to date in their relationship!
I’m not sure I totally agree with EBB that the soul must improve in happiness and wisdom, except by its own fault, So many people have been too badly hurt to accept whatever help they need, even when it is offered. The sun may have to shine above their clouds for some time before breaking through.
But she is right that in the long term: tears, trials and tribulations will not hinder our growth, though we may need God’s grace and other people to help us through them. Christianity is not primarily a self-improvement course!

*Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning. (from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by Robert Browning; available on line)

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May 14. What is Theology Saying? LI: Jesus did not compete with others.

porthmadog.lights.water.sm

austinWhen we are aware that our meagre resources seem ill suited to the enormous responsibility of mission, we are not in an unfortunate situation, rather are we not best suited for what is being asked of us? Jesus had none of the attributes proper to power in his own day. He was not outstanding by his technical competence, he did not shine because of his education or cultural training. He did not try to present logical arguments, to compete with others engaged in similar processes.

Jesus walked around unarmed and defenceless, and that is how he wanted to be. He wanted to reach people at the level of common humanity, to be relevant to the lowliest. The fact that so many responded to him suggests his success. Unarmed, with nothing to defend allowed him complete openness to truth. But it is clear that to be at the complete service of truth involves weakness and vulnerability. This also reveals the real nature of sin. Without this pre-eminence of truth being shown to us such things as lying, manipulation and the like would remain hidden under various degrees of respectability: “It is better to have one man die than to have the whole nation destroyed” – John.11.50.The helplessness of the victim is all too apparent.

But without such vulnerability Jesus could not have spoken to the hearts of ordinary folk. If his words were undercut by fear and by respect for the “strong”, playing it safe, then his work and his preaching would have been no more than an aid to help people integrate into the prevailing culture. This would have been true even if he had preached rebellion, since rebellion is little more than the last step in trying to integrate people.

AMcC

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23 May: Spreading the light.

paschal.candles

During the Easter Vigil every year we light our candles from the great Easter Candle, spreading that light in the darkness across the Church. This simple act reminds us that we are called to bring the light of God’s joyful love to everyone around us. The Holy Spirit himself fans into a flame a faith which may seem rather weak and fragile at times, echoing the words in the Gospel, ‘Lord I do believe, help my little faith.’

Through Confirmation, Jesus himself, through the gift of his Holy Spirit, strengthens that faith so that we can share it with others, boldly and with great courage.

‘Go out to the whole world, proclaim the Good News!’

+ Michael Evans, Bishop of East Anglia, 2003-2011.

Paschal or Easter Candles from past years, preserved at Canterbury Cathedral.
Words of Bishop Evans c/o Canon Anthony Charlton, Canterbury.

 

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15 March: How Many out of Ten?

L'arche procession1

Members of different L’Arche communities processing into Canterbury Cathedral to celebrate 50 years of L’Arche and 40 years of L’Arche in the UK.

Tony Gibbings  was a founder member of L’Arche Kent and is now leader of L’Arche in Ipswich. He has shared with us his reflection on L’Arche as seen by an Irish comedian, Tommy Tiernan. 

As Tony says, the writer speaks to the Irish context. So he has a few things wrong for the rest of us. In most of the world L’Arche is not just a “Catholic community”… and there is not “a chapel in every house”. We can pray around the shared table, or in the sitting room.

Tony writes:

This column (see link below) was handed to me by a friend. Apparently Tommy Tiernan is an Irish comedian and as foul-mouthed as they come these days. I, for one, do not find it easy that all real political resistance in our Western culture seems to only reside in the entertainment industry, rather than politicians or journalists. Recent news reports that some 30 0r 40 journalists have died in 2017 while reporting in war zones or because they exposed corruption or anti-government views shows the danger of challenging oppressive aspects of our world. Comedians sometimes seem to be the only remaining pockets of resistance, limited by being mere entertainers, but perhaps protected from being targeted themselves.

L’Arche was founded as a resistance and alternative to a society based on power-play. In this article Tommy Tiernan brings that dynamic vision to life and up-to-date for 2018. He has said in one of his other regular columns that “I like going to Mass – it’s all about the losers”. Touché. L’Arche’s prophetic message for the church is just that. We are not made more human by our strength or our success: We are made human by acknowledging our vulnerability and failures. We all need a bit of strength and success, but that is not what brings us into true relationship with ourselves, each other, or God. Community helps us to re-connect with our whole self – this is why those who taste L’Arche and the people at the heart of it cannot get away from the promise of authenticity that it holds out to us.

My prayer for 2018 is that all those with responsibility in the Church will grow in their understanding that what we need to see reflected in the Mass is the compassion of God, not what we have had in recent years – a distasteful attempt by the power-players in the Church to use the Mass to attempt to “correct” those who recognise that God is a God of relationship, not of power-play.

My other prayer is, ironically, for personal strength for each of us, in whatever form it is needed!
Best wishes for 2018.

Tony Gibbings,

Director/Community Leader
L’Arche Ipswich, 3 Warrington Road, Ipswich IP1 3QU
Tommy Tiernan 4 out of 10

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24 February: Little Flowers of Saint Francis XIII: A sense of humour helps 2.

rose.wild.scot1

Hearing this Saint Francis, all overjoyed in spirit, lifting up his face unto heaven, stood for a great while with his mind uplifted in God; anon returning to himself again, he knelt him down and rendered thanks and praises unto God: and then with great fervour of spirit turned him to Brother Masseo and said: “Wilt thou know why after me? wilt thou know why after me? wilt thou know why after me? that the whole world doth run? This cometh unto me from the eyes of the most high God, which behold at all time the evil and the good: for those most holy eyes have seen among sinners none more vile, none more lacking, no greater sinner than am I: wherefore to do this marvellous work the which He purposeth to do, He hath not found upon the earth a creature more vile, and therefore hath He chosen me to confound the nobleness and the greatness and the strength and the beauty and wisdom of the world: to
the intent that men may know that all virtue and all goodness come from Him, and not from the creature, and that no man may glory in himself; but whoso will glory, may glory in the Lord, unto whom is honour and glory for ever. and ever.”

Then Brother Masseo, at so humble a reply uttered with so great fervour, was afraid, and knew of a surety that Saint Francis was rooted and grounded in humility.

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January 16: Reflections from the Little Flowers of Saint Francis. II.

farewell-zambia-feb-2017-07

Of Brother Bernard of Quintavalle, 2.

Saint Francis, thinking truly that Bernard was asleep, in his sleep rose up from his bed and set himself to pray, lifting up his hands and eyes unto heaven, and with exceeding great devotion and fervour said : “My God, my God.” And thus saying and sorely weeping he abode till morning, alway repeating : “ My God, my God,” and naught beside; and this Saint Francis said, while musing on and marvelling at the excellence of the divine Majesty, which deigned to stoop down to a perishing world and through his poor little Francis purposed to bring a remedy for the salvation of his soul and the souls of others.

Therefore illumined by the Holy Spirit, or the spirit of prophecy, foreseeing what great things God would do through him and his Order, and minding him of his own insufficiency and little worth, he cried unto God and besought Him that by His pity and almighty power, without the which the weakness of man may naught avail, He would supply his lack, aid and fulfil what of itself was nothing worth.

Bernard seeing, by the light of the lamp, the most devout acts of Saint Francis, and devoutly
pondering in his mind the words that he spake, was touched and inspired by the Holy Spirit to change his life; in the morning therefore he called Saint Francis and thus bespake him: “Brother Francis, I am wholly purposed in my heart to leave the world and follow thee in whatsoever thou rnayest bid me.” Hearing this, Saint Francis rejoiced in spirit, and said: “Bernard, this that thou sayest is a task so great and difficult, that thereof must we seek counsel of our Lord Jesu Christ, and beseech Him that He be pleased to show us His will therein, and teach us how we may bring it to pass: wherefore let us go together to the bishop’s house, wherein is a good priest, and let us let say the Mass; then let us continue in prayer until Tierce, beseeching God that in thrice opening of the missal He may reveal to us the path it is His will we should elect.” Bernard made answer that this pleased him right well.

Photo from the Missionaries of Africa. Here is a bishop of today, teaching from the Missal. Good grant Wisdom to all teachers and preachers!

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12 January, Temperance VI: Temperance, Restraint and Anger.

hionahill

One of the important aspects of the virtue temperance is that it is not just about our physical appetites. It is about all our appetites, and develops our ability to handle such emotions as intense fear, desire and anger. And so, it complements moderation with something that uses perhaps more ‘muscle’ – and that something is restraint. Restraint is that power of soul whose act is to choose. In so doing, it curbs the desire for immediate gratification by showing us that we may fulfil our being more truly by making a reasoned choice than by gratifying an impulse that is coming (as in the case of anger) from a hidden desire for vengeance.

Restraint has particular relevance to the passion of anger. Anger can be a very strong passion indeed, and it is worth dwelling on it for a moment. St. Thomas grants that some forms of anger are useful: the anger that surfaces in regard to injustice, for example, and any kind of abuse. Anger is a necessary passion in these circumstances. I would go even further and say that there are some situations to which anger is the only healthy response. But, once again, anger must be directed by the light of reason. Intemperate anger can be destructive and abusive itself, and St. Thomas would not allow that it is good to fight violence with violence. This is where restraint comes in. Blind wrath, bitterness of spirit, revengeful resentment: these forms of anger are highlighted by St. Thomas as being the most dangerous aspects of anger and therefore most in need of the curbing powers of restraint. Blind wrath, he says, is anger that is immoderately fierce and destructive. Bitterness of spirit is to do with a state of anger that lasts so long that it becomes a part of one’s very character and personality. In this case the offence remains in one’s memory, and gives rise to what Thomas calls ‘lasting displeasure’ that does not stop until punishment has been inflicted. Revengeful resentment is an aspect of this ongoing bitterness in which the disposition becomes chronically sullen and the mind is endlessly preoccupied with taking revenge.

When these aspects of anger are delineated here in writing, it is easy to see how harmful they can be – to ourselves and to others – but let’s face it: we have all been there and probably done it. I don’t doubt that many of us have at times been swept away by the intensity of our feelings and indulged in precisely the kind of angry behaviour Thomas describes. These temptations are part of the weakness we have as fallen beings. But the virtue of temperance brings good things to bear on this state of affairs. Through gentleness, justice and charity we can restrain the onslaught of anger.

Gentleness, contrary to what we might think, does not mean that we never feel angry, or that if we do, we can get over it almost before we feel the full force of it. Rather, gentleness is what makes a person master of herself, and therefore master of the power of anger, according to St. Thomas – for anger is a power, and as such is capable of accomplishing something good. Gentleness is about channeling that power rightly, dealing with the cause of the anger fairly, addressing the whole situation that gave rise to the anger in such a way as to change it for the better.

In order to do this, of course, we need to enlist the aid of our reason. We are back to the need to think. Our reason then, brings justice and charity to bear upon the situation that has caused our anger. Justice and charity working together with gentleness enables us to focus on something other than our own pain. We become able to focus on the feelings of the one (or ones) who offended us, on seeing the situation from the other side, and on effecting the changes that will lead to the establishment of peace – even if some of those changes are changes that need to take place within our own heart.

SJC

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