Not many Canterbury citizens would pause for a photograph here! I have cropped away some of the street furniture on this corner, but there are still bollards, a bin, contradictory road signs and a public toilet block. Oh, and a cherry tree.
A cherry tree so laden with blossom that these Japanese people have stopped to take each other’s photographs, despite the clutter. They see something we pass by on the other side.
There is beauty in places where we’d never look; sometimes it breaks out and hits us between the eyes. Sometimes we can be shown beauty by a friend, or as here, by complete strangers.
We will soon be celebrating the Man of Sorrows, ‘so disfigured that he seemed no longer human’.(Isaiah 52:14). Let’s cut away the clutter and stand beneath the Tree of Life. Cherry blossom will not take away the horror and evil in this world, and it seems that all we can offer to help is the wiping with a face cloth, the cup of water or vinegar, the money in the collecting bucket.
Let’s not scorn to offer such support, the Works of Mercy; it makes a difference, reminds people that we are one family, sharing one earthly home. There’s something about cherry blossom that touches the Japanese soul: my nephew saw Japanese people photographing each other beneath cherry trees; my wife saw the same in Rome some years ago. It’s a deep sign of home.
The Cross is a deep sign of home, in Heaven for Eternity; through suffering we can be one with the Man of Sorrows who will be lifted up; with him we shall see the light and be content.
Eddie Gilmore has been reflecting on Lent with the help of a couple who run the local greengrocery shop. A significant conversation for me was with the woman who runs my local green grocer. She and her husband are Muslims from Pakistan and they observe Ramadan, which means not eating or drinking during daylight hours for about four weeks. I was speaking to her one time in the first week of that holy month and she seemed quite joyful and serene (her husband slightly less so, and by Week 4 he was visibly feeling the strain!). She remarked to me, “It’s a time to be purified,” and I find that a lovely image for Lent: a time to be purified, from whatever it is we need to be purified from, whether that’s unhealthy food or unhealthy thoughts or images or habits or addictions. One of my favourite lines in the whole of the bible is one we hear read out in church on Ash Wednesday. It is found in Joel Chapter 2: ‘Come back to me with all your heart.’ What an invitation! However much we mess things up, God will be waiting for us with open arms. Come back to me with all your heart. And we’ll always be given another chance; if we don’t get it ‘right’ this Lent there will always be next Lent.
The woman at the green grocer gave me another valuable insight into Lent when she explained that Ramadan was also a time to do good deeds to those in the community in need. Again this has biblical echoes for me, in the book of Isaiah, Chapter 58: ‘Is not this the kind of fast that pleases me…to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor.’
As well as being filled with numerous occasions for temptation, Lent also happens to coincide, in the Northern Hemisphere at least, with the magical season of Spring. Indeed the word ‘Lent’ is simply derived from the old English word ‘lencten’ which means Spring season. As we enter Lent the world is quite literally exploding with new life. The snowdrops begin the show, closely followed by the crocuses and daffodils, then a little later some very brave early tulips. Meanwhile the first specks of yellow appear on the forsythia, the trees and bushes begin to bud, the days lengthen and the birdsong starts earlier…and finishes later.
So let us not in this Lent season be too harsh on ourselves. Let us perhaps instead hear anew the invitation to come back with all our heart. Let us find ways of reaching out to ‘the poor’, whoever and wherever they may be. And let us rejoice in this incredible annual miracle of creation.
Summer is gone with all its roses,
Its sun and perfumes and sweet flowers,
Its warm air and refreshing showers:
And even Autumn closes.
Yea, Autumn's chilly self is going,
And winter comes which is yet colder;
Each day the hoar-frost waxes bolder,
And the last buds cease blowing."
From Goblin Market, The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems by Christina Rossetti.
With a different title, this would have been a straightforward descriptive poem but maybe we should think again. Summer, Autumn and Winter; why no mention of Spring and the hope it brings? Because the poet is feeling bitter, or examining bitterness?
There are people today, Christian people, who seem to have lost hope and become bitter. It was not Christina Rossetti’s default position, but clearly one she experienced and understood. Disappointment in love, twice over, may have contributed.
Not for us to succumb to bitterness. There maybe naught for our comfort in the news about the climate and the future of our grandchildren across the world, but we must acknowledge the reality of the bitterness and the realities that contribute to it. Which of those can we make even the smallest dent or scratch in? What do we, can we, repent of?
I’ll be out litterpicking tomorrow. That’s two spiritual works of mercy, I reckon: to instruct (by example) the ignorant who leave rubbish about, and to bear wrongs patiently. It’s a start.
For forty years now, Prisons Week has encouraged Christian individuals and churches to pray for the needs of all those affected by prisons: prisoners and their families, victims of crime and their communities, those working in the criminal justice system and the many people caring for those affected by crime inside and outside our prisons.
Prisons Week raises awareness and generates prayer. It motivates volunteers to step forward and give their time and gifts, in prisons and in their own communities. It provides an annual focus and reason for Christians to work together, building capacity and motivation to make a difference for people who are out of sight and often out of mind.
Today is Prisons Sunday – the second Sunday in October – marking the beginning of the week of prayer, which runs until Saturday.
Here’s a reflection from our friend Eddie Gilmore of the London Irish Chaplaincy, which supports Irish prisoners in England. It shows how effective this ministry can be, in God’s good time.
“We never know, at the time, the ripple of consequences set in motion by the slightest act of kindness.” Those words of the late Jonathan Sacks seem especially apt in the case of a man helped recently by the Irish Chaplaincy.
One of our team, Fiona, had, before the pandemic, begun to visit a Traveller man in one of the big London prisons. He was in segregation, ‘seg’, due to making threats to prison staff and having a weapon smuggled into the prison via a corrupt officer. His original sentence had been four years but he had served sixteen due to poor compliance and aggressive behaviour. Like many of those we meet in prison he had lived a chaotic lifestyle. His childhood included his father committing suicide when he was ten and his mother becoming a drug addict shortly afterwards. I can imagine that he had not received a great deal of kindness growing up. Tragically several of his sons are also in the criminal justice system. Fiona took an interest in him and she would often tell me in supervision about the hilarious comments he would make about various things. He was clearly responding to someone simply giving him a bit of positive attention and treating him in a different way to how he was probably used to being treated.
With prison visiting not possible through the lockdown the contact continued via phone. His aggressive behaviour diminished. He also heard that Fiona had managed to get two other Traveller men from the same prison into a rehab. facility following their release and he began to see this as a possible future option for himself. Eventually Fiona managed to get him considered for parole, and supported him closely through the process. And then one morning we all received an e-mail from Fiona with the incredible news that the parole outcome had been successful. He has just been released and has gone voluntarily into the rehab facility. It’s very early days and there is a lot of anxiety on his part but for him to have got to this point from where he was is nothing short of miraculous.
My background will have been very different to that of the man mentioned above: a stable home with a loving family and lots of opportunities. And yet, there have particular times in my own life when a simple act of kindness has been transformative, and has almost certainly inspired in me the wish to do likewise to others. When I eat my pre- big cycle bowl of porridge I’m often reminded of an act of kindness that was shown to me over twenty years ago. When spending a year in Seoul with Yim Soon and our three then young children I used to go once a month to spend twenty-four hours with the Columbans, a bunch of very welcoming and very entertaining Irish missionary priests (and it was the Columbans who founded the Irish Chaplaincy back in 1957). It was a little oasis for me: a chance to rest, relax, speak English, hear some funny stories, drink ‘real’ tea. One time at breakfast one of the guys, Pat Muldoon, was served with a big bowl of porridge which had been made specially for him. A usual Korean breakfast is much like lunch or dinner: rice together with various side dishes, some of them very spicy, a bowl of soup, meat, maybe even some raw fish for a special treat! He must have seen my eyes light up at the sight of the porridge because he put the bowl in front of me and walked off. True enough, after months of Korean style breakfasts, delicious as they were, all I wanted that morning was a bowl of simple, plain porridge served with a little sprinkling of sugar and a little bit of milk. I’ll never ever forget that gesture of Pat that meant the world to me at the time, nor the words he said to me on every visit, “Be nice to yourself.”
Sacks goes on to say that every day gives each of us an opportunity to change a life and by so doing to change the world, and he concludes that, “We mend the world one life at a time, one act at a time, one day at a time,” and that, “Every good act, every healing gesture, lights a candle of hope in a dark world.”
(Quotes taken from: ‘To heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility’ by Jonathan Sacks)
The Christian tradition has never recognised the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”. These are strong words. He noted that “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man”. He clearly explained that “the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them”. Consequently, he maintained, “it is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favour only a few”. This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity.
94. The rich and the poor have equal dignity, for “the Lord is the maker of them all” (Proverbs 22:2). “He himself made both small and great” (Wisdom 6:7), and “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Matthew 5:45). This has practical consequences, such as those pointed out by the bishops of Paraguay: “Every campesino has a natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land where he can establish his home, work for subsistence of his family and a secure life. This right must be guaranteed so that its exercise is not illusory but real. That means that apart from the ownership of property, rural people must have access to means of technical education, credit, insurance, and markets”.
95. The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shall not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”.
There is a verse suppressed in modern editions of the Victorian hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’, which runs:
The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.
It was a struggle, led by the churches, to establish the right to universal education in Britain, a struggle they are still involved with elsewhere. ‘Instructing the Ignorant’ is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, which together with the Corporal Works of Mercy are long seen as a distillation of Christian living. Ignorance, that is lack of education, orders the lowly estate of many people.
The secondary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have hit many countries hard, including worsening hunger in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Catholic Relief Services provides food and cash assistance to hard-hit families. (Courtesy of Catholic Relief Services/Justin Makangara)
Lisa Elmaleh took her antique, large-frame camera with her when she volunteered with the Sisters helping Latin America migrants along ex-president Trump’s border wall. This photo-essay, with words by Soli Salgado tells some of the stories they encountered. It comes from Global Sisters’ Report. Click on the link and read on: it is a sobering report.
Here is another consecutive post from Sussex, and another reminder of what our vocation might consist of, today, this minute. There are people we cannot visit in person, but an email or postcard would be appreciated, and would have pride of place on the bookshelf or in the frame of the mirror, or under a fridge magnet, where it can give light to the whole house.
Among the inhabitants of the old town of Hastings was the mother of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, the admiral. A charming account of a visit paid to her by her son is given in De la Prynne’s diary from the end of the XVII Century.
I heard a gentleman say, who was in the ship with him about six years ago, that as they were sailing over against the town, of Hastings, in Sussex, Sir Cloudesley called out, ‘Pilot, put near; I have a little business on shore.’ So he put near, and Sir Cloudesley and this gentleman went to shore in a small boat, and having walked about half a mile, Sir Cloudesley came to a little house [in All Saints Street], ‘Come,’ says he, ‘my business is here; I came on purpose to see the good woman of this house.’
Upon this they knocked at the door, and out came a poor old woman, upon which Sir Cloudesley kissed her, and then falling down on his knees, begged her blessing, and calling her mother (who had removed out of Yorkshire hither). He was mightily kind to her, and she to him, and after that he had made his visit, he left her ten guineas, and took his leave with tears in his eyes and departed to his ship.
From Highways and Byways in Sussex, by E. V. Lucas.
Sister Johanna’s reflection yesterday reminds me of the time when, talking to Philippe, a Missionary of Africa, I described my work with children and teenagers who were excluded from school. His response was, ‘First of all, you have to love them.’
Talking to my colleagues over the years, I came to realise how true this was of all of them, though they would more likely have spoken about ‘getting alongside’ the young people and their families; loving is not a recognised professional activity. Yet some tutors kept a supply of children’s clothes and shoes, either for their pupil or a sibling; I’ve known outgrown bikes and beds to be supplied by tutors, while home-made cakes and preserves showed that we cared without ‘giving charity’.
All this contributed to establishing trust between families on the margin and professional teachers; a trust that could not be taken for granted. The young people and their parents were often Sister Johanna’s
so-called “sinners” … people who were thought to be involved in all sorts of iniquitous practices, whose entire life-style was considered morally dubious at best. I daresay that then as now, there were people relegated to this group who were essentially honest but had fallen on very hard times, people for whom earning a living had proved impossible, and for reasons beyond their control. But many will have been truly as dishonest and even criminal as they were thought to be, and all were deeply wounded people for one reason or another. This is a crowd of seeming failures – if you judge success by the sleek appearance of it. And this is something Jesus never did.
I would not have you see my families as stained glass saints, far from it: in many cases they really were dishonest and criminal, and not necessarily skilled crooks, so they tended to get caught. One father was later murdered by a drug dealer; a dear boy was murdered by his stepfather; assault and theft were not uncommon. More than once I was warned not to visit alone, but then the question ‘What would Jesus do?’ was easy to answer: this is my job today and today this is my vocation.
‘Will, you come and sit here and tell me I’m a good mum. You know I’m not!’
‘That’s not what your children say, is it?’
Her children did not judge her by appearances. Part of my job, my vocation, one of the parts not mentioned in any job description, was to vindicate her children by helping that mother find the good mother in her heart. Perhaps we should dare to remove the masks and let Jesus breathe on us, then take his healing grace to the battered souls crowding around us.
I leant my bike against a buttress of Saint Mildred’s Church while I closed the garden gate. I returned to find myself looking at this stretch of the north wall which I estimate was strengthened in the 19th Century. The course of limestone at the top of this picture is level, top and bottom, being made of identical blocks. To get the top level the bottom had to be level, of course; difficult with flints and reused lumps of limestone, requiring some adjustment. We can see here that the builders used sherds of roofing tile, thin slivers of flint – and oyster shells! I have seen them used in a garden wall before, but never expected to find them holding up a church.
Perhaps many of the people who really hold up the church – ordinary, decent people like Naomi and Ruth – go unnoticed, but their neighbourly prayers and works help to keep the rest of us on a level. Let’s be grateful for them.