Thursday, 25 September 2008

Carrying Jesus

From a sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lourdes on 24th September 2008:

"Our first and overarching task is to carry Jesus, gratefully and faithfully, with us in all our doings: like St Teresa of Avila, we might do this quite prosaically by having with us always a little picture or a cross in our pockets, so that we constantly 'touch base' with the Lord. We can do it by following the guidance of the Orthodox spiritual tradition and repeating silently the Jesus Prayer, 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner'. And if we are faithful in thus carrying Christ with us, something will happen, some current will stir and those we are with will feel, perhaps well below the conscious surface, a movement of life and joy which they may not understand at all. And we may never see it or know about it; people may not even connect it with us, yet it will be there – because Jesus speaks always to what is buried in the heart of men and women, the destiny they were made for. Whether they know it or not, there is that within them which is turned towards him. Keep on carrying Jesus and don't despair: mission will happen, in spite of all, because God in Christ has begun his journey into the heart."

The full text may be found here on the Archbishop's website and thanks go to Theodosius of massinformation for pointing it out -he suggests a mantilla tip!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Excellent Women?

Judah and Tamar, school of Rembrandt

It’s a while ago now, but I wonder if you remember the gospel for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that is the first chapter of Matthew, the genealogy of Christ. An aside in the sermon I heard pointed out that, in contrast to Our Lady herself, most of the women mentioned are pretty disreputable! This has roused the wrath of my inner feminist (yes really!) to provide some special pleading in each case

1)Tamar (Genesis 38): her scandalous reputation stems from dressing as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law, Judah, into sleeping with her. But, she only tricks him into doing his legal duty. Under the Levirate law, when a man died, his nearest male relative had to marry the widow and father a son to continue the dead man's name. Tamar had been married to Er, and then to his brother Onan but had no children so Judah was shirking his responsibility. When Judah finds out that she is pregnant, he orders her to be burnt as a harlot but when she reveals his seal, which he had given to the 'prostitute', he is forced to reveal that he is the father of her child. He also admits that "she is in the right rather than I".

2)Rahab (Joshua 2): unlike Tamar, she really is a prostitute. But some would call her a 'tart with a heart', though possibly not the inhabitants of Jericho. When Joshua sent spies into the city, she hid them from the king under bundles of flax on the roof of her house. So, a traitor as well. But consider why she did it, "I know that the Lord has given you this land...when we heard this, our hearts failed us, and no courage is left in any of us to stand up to you, because the Lord your God is God both in heaven above and on earth beneath." Isn't this a profession of faith and an acceptance of God's will?

3)Ruth: she is not in any way disreputable. I'm not going to summarise the Book of Ruth, but read it because it's quite nice (and it's short!)

All three have in common a loyalty to their faith, to God's laws and a willingness to accept his command, even at a huge price. Tamar is prepared to risk her life and reputation, Rahab betrays her country and Ruth rejects the safety of her family for uncertainty. But for me, the most inspiring thing is that none of them crumbles, bewails their fate and waits for a miracle. They show intelligence, independence and act to better their lives while remaining true to their faith, and God helps them, because they have helped themselves.

(I know I've omitted "Uriah's wife", that is, Bathsheba, but I can't actually find any mitigating circumstances for her adultery with David. I suppose she was the mother of Solomon who was a Just King and Good Thing.)

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

A Diary of Private Prayer

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

God bless Mummy.
I know that's right.
Wasn't it fun in the bath to-night?
The cold's so cold and the hot's so hot.
God bless Daddy--I quite forgot.


Oh! Thank you, God, for a lovely day.
And what was the other I had to say?
I said "Bless Daddy," so what can it be?
Oh! Now I remember it. God bless Me.

One way I've found of avoiding falling into Christopher Robin's (albeit very endearing) pitfall is to use John Baillie's A Diary of Private Prayer each evening as part of 'saying my prayers'. I recently came across an updated version, A Diary of Daily Prayer (2002) by J. Barrie Shepherd whose aim in producing the new text was to supplement the earlier work.

I came across a copy of the 1956 edition in a box of books in the parish church in Walsingham last year and it turned out to be a very worthwhile purchase. The book offers prayers for morning and evening to take the reader through thirty-one days, as well as two separate prayers for use on Sundays. Each prayer is printed on the right-hand side of the book, with the left-hand page left blank for writing thoughts, notes or prayer requests. The prayers are, according to the author, intended as aids and are elegantly written and beautifully sincere.

I've reproduced the evening prayer I've come to today as an illustration:

'Let me now rejoice, O most gracious God, in the love Thou hast shown to our poor human race, opening up to us a way whereby we might be delivered from our sin and foolishness.

O God the Father, I praise the great and holy love whereby, when we had utterly gone astray, Thou didst diligently seek us out and save us, sending Thy well-beloved Son to suffer and to die that we might be restored to the fellowship of Thy children.

O God the Son, I praise the great and holy love whereby Thou didst humble Thyself for my sake and for the sake of my brethren, consenting to share our common life, to dwell in the midst of all our sin and shame, to endure all the bitterness of Thy most blessed Passion, and at the last to die upon the Cross, that we might be released from our bondage and enter with Thee into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

O God the Holy Spirit, I praise the great and holy love whereby Thou dost daily shed abroad in my unworthy heart the peace and joy of sin forgiven, making me a partaker with all the saints in the blessings of my Lord's Incarnation, of His Passion and Crucifixion, and of His Resurrection and Ascension to the Father's right hand on high.

O holy and blessed Trinity, let me now so dwell in the mystery of this heavenly love that all hatred and malice may be rooted out from the heart and life. Let me love Thee, as Thou didst first love me; and in loving Thee and my neighbour in Thee let me be saved from all false love of myself; and to Thee, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be all glory and praise for ever. Amen.'

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Faith in the Frame

Is this, the Isenheim altarpiece, "the most harrowing depiction of suffering in the history of western art", as claimed by a panelist on Faith in the Frame, a new ITV discussion series on Christian art? Looking at it certainly chills me.

This was painted by Matthias Grunewald for the monastery of St Antony in Isenheim near Colmar where the monks ran a hospital for those suffering from the skin disease ergotism. Patients were placed in front of it in the hope of a miracle cure. As the programme points out, the patients might well have been able to identify their suffering with that of the crucified Christ as his skin is covered in lesions and discoloured. Their gaze would have then moved to the Deposition, directly below the centrepiece and just above the altar itself reminding them that they were about to receive the body of Our Lord at Communion. And then, the right hand panel depicting the resurrection would provide hope that they might one day be cured, or at least freed from their suffering.

I would highly recommend watching the whole programme which is available for a month on the ITV website. The discussion is chaired by Melvyn Bragg and the panelists are Sarah Dunant, a novelist and broadcaster and Jackie Wullschlager, art critic for the Financial Times, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who reminds us "if we have the crucifixion as a central tenet of the faith, this is what it's about" and not the more cosmetic representations dismissed by one contributor as "Catholic interior design".

This evening's episode features the Wenhaston Doom and a full list of featured works can be found here. It is unfortunately, but not surprisingly, on at 12.15 am.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The Nativity of Our Lady

In slightly belated honour of the Nativity of Our Lady, here is a painting, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, that I am particularly fond of and something I enjoyed singing yesterday...

Ave Maria! O Maiden, O Mother,
Fondly thy children are calling on thee!
Thine are the graces unclaimed by another,
Sinless and beautiful, Star of the sea!

Mater amabilis, ora pro nobis!
Pray for thy children who call upon thee;
Ave sanctissima! Ave purissima!
Sinless and beautiful, star of the sea!

Ave Maria! The night shades are falling;
Softly our voices arise unto thee;
Earth's lonely exiles for succor are calling,
Sinless and beautiful, star of the sea!

Mater amabilis, ora pro nobis!
Pray for thy children who call upon thee;
Ave sanctissima! Ave purissima!
Sinless and beautiful, star of the sea!

Ave Maria! thy children are kneeling,
Words of endearment are murmured to thee;
Softly thy spirit upon us is stealing,
Sinless and beautiful, star of the sea!

Mater amabilis, ora pro nobis!
Pray for thy children who call upon thee;
Ave sanctissima! Ave purissima!
Sinless and beautiful, star of the sea!

Ave Maria! thou portal of heaven,
Harbour of refuge, to thee do we flee;
lost in the darkness, by stormy winds driven,
Sinless and beautiful, star of the sea!

Mater amabilis, ora pro nobis!
Pray for thy children who call upon thee;
Ave sanctissima! Ave purissima!
Sinless and beautiful, star of the sea!

Monday, 1 September 2008

The Light Invisible

"The Light Invisible" is a collection of stories bound together by the central character of an old parish priest, a similar character to Chesterton's Father Brown in some ways except that, instead of solving crimes, he sees visions. This is Benson's first novel, and the only one he wrote whilst still an Anglican. Later in his life he came to regard it as inferior to his other works. It is certainly true that the stories are sentimental and, in particular, the very emotive treatments of the sufferings of animals and plants can jar somewhat, but I found that these mystical stories led me to think in a new way about certain aspects of my faith.

The individual story which initially made me want to write something for the Women's Guild is called "In the Convent Chapel." In this the priest visits an order of enclosed nuns and as he kneels in the chapel, he reflects on the nun whose hour it is for making intercession before the Sacrament. He begins by thinking that the contemplative life is a waste and that this woman could have been happy and useful in the world; could have been a wife and a mother instead of being locked up in "the sour life of a cloister- as loveless and desolate as the cold walls themselves." But then the priest experiences what he (and S. Theresa) call an "intellectual vision". He becomes aware that the quiet of the convent chapel is deceptive and that the praying nun and the Tabernacle are in fact a hub of activity. He attempts to describe what he means by comparing the convent chapel to the office of a great business man, a Rothschild, which, though it may not seem as bustling, is in fact at the centre of far more activity than the "small provincial shopkeeper" (to whom the secular priest compares himself) could ever dream of.

In other stories, the priest talks about a spiritual life which goes on around human beings, for the most part without their noticing. In "Consolatrix Afflictorum" we see a grief-stricken little boy consoled by Our Lady, who is visible and tangible to him, though imperceptible by anyone else. Another story describes the intervention of a tender and loving angel who does not prevent but rather oversees the death of a small child. In "Over the Gateway" the priest is granted a vision of a saint interceding for a grieving woman, uniting himself with her grief and laying it before the throne of God. The praying man is kneeling in the air, but also at a sharp angle to the ground. It nonetheless appears to the the priest that there is nothing peculiar about this man but that instead the world appears skewed.

" showed me how the world of spirits was the real world, and the world of sense comparatively unreal."

Each story in the collection contributes to this idea: that our worldly experiences are only a small part of the picture; that our sorrows and struggles are consoled and supported by the prayers of the saints. However much we are taught about the communion of saints, and although we affirm our belief in it every week in the creed, the spiritual world of the angels and saints can seem very distant to those of us who are neither visionaries nor contemplative nuns. Stories such as Benson's help us to remember that we are surrounded by the unseen and spiritual Kingdom of God, which nevertheless involves and sustains us.

Benson's priest is not suggesting that we should all be in contemplative orders. After all, if it were not for the " small provincial shopkeeper" and even, perhaps, those of us without as much as a parish "shop" to run, it is hard to see how the prayers of the conventual Rothschild would win so many souls. Instead he is reminding us that the supernatural is "more than a beautiful and symbolic fairy-story" and that we are all living and praying within the context of the community of saints.

It is very interesting, I think, to note that Benson wrote these stories around the time when he converted which,for a member of the Community of the Ressurection and the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury must have been a time of considerable stress and uncertainty. It is easy to imagine why tales of devotion to Our Lady, trust in the Sacrament and the prayers of the saints should have appealed to him then.