Saturday, 31 December 2011

Last day of 2011: Cor Iesu, desiderium collium aeternorum.

This year has been one which I  have devoted to exploring  - or searching for -  the Sacred Heart. In truth I had no idea what this was to mean, or where it would take me.  But looking back over the past 12 months it has been perhaps the most transformative period of my life.  And I don’t think this blog is the place to document this.  However, it is enough to say that I have experienced how very powerful the devotion is as a way of providing a focus for ones daily spiritual life: and having started I realize that my journey has only just begun!  The Sacred Heart is indeed the summary of our Catholic faith, and the rediscovery of its role in the life of the Church seems to me absolutely necessary for the Church in the 21st century.  I cannot imagine how I would have undertaken this journey without the icon as a focus and a map. So I am very much in debt to Ian for undertaking the commission.   A year on I know that I have barely scratched the surface.  Reading the icon has been like climbing up a mountain and feeling exhilarated by looking down on how far I have come, only to appreciate that I am merely on the foothills looking up at the mountain peak towering above.  Or  it is like I have just entered my interior castle and heard the sound of the divine milieu calling me to find the centre? 

A while ago I came across a copy of Auguste Valensin’s  Joy in the Faith*.   Valensin and Teilhard were both  Jesuits and the greatest of  friends and his book  serves to remind me that thus far I have spent little time actually exploring the role of the Sacred Heart in the  Jesuit tradition. Today I read a passage in Valensin’s book which prompts me to begin the new year by taking a new (Jesuit) path towards the ‘desire of the everlasting hills’.  Valensin observes that the Sacred Heart of Jesus  is the ‘image and expression of the Father’s heart’.  He reflects on the fact that the gospels record that Jesus was often moved to tears and that ‘He allows  himself to be conquered by his tender love.’  Valensin prays;

Jesus, as You have wept  for others rather than yourself, allow me to follow your example!  May a full nature flourish within me..’  (Joy in the Faith, Desclee, New York, 1958, pp 99-101)

That seems a good prayer and a good sign post for the coming year.

* La Joie dans la Foi, Paris 1955) 

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Teilhard and Christmas

If I had to chose one passage from Teilhard which had the most impact on me as a teenager it was his observation on Christmas  contained in The Hymn of the Universe.   I have it before me now marked and underlined with the word ' Christmas' in blue ink.  I remember reading it out at a meeting as a student where people were asked to say what Christmas meant to them.   Many years have past, but to me what Teilhard says still captures  the enormity of what we celebrate on this day: nothing less than the beginning of a new phase in the evolution of mankind.  This is why the stars moved and the Angels sang ' Gloria in Excelsis Deo!'   What happened in the stable was a cosmic and biological event: the Word of God became flesh. The Word of God began to beat and pulse through all creation with a human heart.   It beats still: if only we listen and follow. 

The prodigious expanses of time which preceded the first Christmas were not empty of Christ: they were imbued with the influx of his power. It was the ferment of his conception that stirred up the cosmic masses and directed the initial developments of the biosphere. It was the travail preceding his birth that accelerated the development of instinct and the birth of thought upon the earth. Let us have done with the stupidity which makes a stumbling-block of the endless eras of expectancy imposed on us by the Messiah; the fearful, anonymous labours of primitive man, the beauty fashioned through its age-long history by ancient Egypt, the anxious expectancies of Israel, the patient distilling of the attar of oriental mysticism, the endless refining of wisdom by the Greeks: all these were needed before the Flower could blossom on the rod of Jesse and of all humanity. All these preparatory processes were cosmically and biologically necessary that Christ might set foot upon our human stage. And all this labour was set in motion by the active, creative awakening of his soul inasmuch as that human soul had been chosen to breathe life into the universe. When Christ first appeared before men in the arms of Mary he had already stirred up the world. (Hymn of the Universe, p70) 

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas Eve: Venite Adoremus

This  Advent has been one of preparing for Christmas by taking the road from mount Carmel to Bethlehem in the company of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross as well as  Teilhard.   And a very enlightening trip it has been.  I am still trying to make sense of what I have learnt about preparing my heart or my stable to receive the Christ child.  I think to sum up what I have learnt is that mystical writings of the Carmelite tradition have considerable relevance for us who do not live the kind of lives led by Carmelites.  If we are to find Christ we have to find ourselves: we have to try and free ourselves from all the things which get in the way of becoming closer and nearer to the love of God.  But we must not delude ourselves that this is easy: finding Christ in all things and in our very centre and core is an enormous challenge.  We often have to look for the love of God in the darkest of dark places when we can see little light and joy.  We have to find God when we fail, or when are lonely, afraid and in pain.  The writings of St Teresa and St. John  provide us with powerful insights and disciplines into the great task of purifying our hearts.  These were evidently an inspiration to Teilhard’s own mysticism.   And what all three show us is that it is that our religious life needs a mystical dimension, as fire needs oxygen.  For me Teilhard is more relevant to what that can mean for me because he was someone who lived in the wide-wide world: he travelled to the most distant parts of the world, but he also travelled deep within his own ‘interior castle.’  He shows us how a mystical understanding of our world and cosmos is vital for us to grasp the profound significance of the evolution of our souls as of the cosmos.  As Francis Kelly Nemeck and  Theresa Coombs show in their book  – despite the differences in language – Teilhard was remarkably close to what St. John has to tell us about dealing with our ‘dark nights’ and our ‘ diminishments’.   And thus, I think Teilhard captures so much of what I have learnt this Advent about purifying our hearts.   If we want to welcome the Child of Bethlehem in our hearts this Christmas  we have to ADORE  Him.  That is we have to adore God and only God.  As Teilhard says:

To adore …That means to lose oneself in the unfathomable, to plunge into the inexhaustible, to find peace in the incorruptible, to be absorbed in defined immensity, to offer oneself to the fire and the transparency, to annihilate oneself in proportion as one becomes more deliberately conscious of oneself, and to give of one's deepest to that whose depth has no end. Whom, then, can we adore? The more man becomes man, the more will he become prey to a need, a need that is always more explicit, more subtle and more magnificent, the need to adore. ( The Divine Milieu, p 127-8)

It is when we as individuals and as societies lose ourselves in the fathomable, exhaustible, and corruptible  things of this world that we lose sight of the light of God shining out of the stable.  And from this stems so much human misery.  It is only when we lose ourselves in God that we really find ourselves.  It is when the heart of Jesus beats within us as it did in Mary’s womb  and when we are wholly receptive and open to God’s will that we become the person we are meant to be.  And thus on this holy night I will sing ‘Venite Adoremus’ with a new sense of what it means.  The answer to my question was there all along in the stable.  We purify our hearts by adoring the baby who is Alpha and Omega.

Adeste, fideles,

Laeti triumphantes,

Venite, venite in Bethlehem.

Natum videte
Regem angelorum.

Venite adoremus,

Friday, 23 December 2011

Last week of Advent: the blessing of the icon

It was appropriate that the blessing of the icon took place in the last week of Advent.  Our parish priest did the honours  and afterwards we had an excellent supper to celebrate.   It was a simple, but moving little ceremony which meant so much our family.  We asked God to: 'Bless and make holy this icon created in honour and in remembrance of Your Sacred Heart. [And to]  Sanctify all who come before it in prayer.'

And this line captured for us what the icon is ultimately is for: to act as a focus for prayer for all those who call upon the Lord in true faith and with a pure heart.

With the icon now blessed it feels somehow far more part of the family!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Remembering St. John of the Cross

I have a terrible confession to make.  Although this day is very special to me I have never once, in all these years, realised that it is the day when the Church asks us to remember the life and work of St. John of the Cross.  And yet there it was, all along.  Waiting for me to discover it.  It was a while ago now that reading this icon lead me to the Carmelite tradition, by way of an old Chaplain and a much loved picture in my junior school.  Since then I have been reflecting on the Sacred Heart as calling us to 'purify' our own hearts as we travel to Bethlehem this advent.   So today is a good day to put some thoughts down on what I have learnt thus far about a 'pure heart' and how this relates to Teilhard.  I was not really trying to make any connections, but just allow disparate thoughts to converge in their own time.  But, as always, all did converge!

Just a few points  to note here.  The first is, of course, St. John's 'dark night of the soul'.  They have not been my favourite times in my life.  And yet St. John makes us realise that  when we feel utterly alone and feel that God has abandoned us we are at critical points in the journey towards the divine centre. The cross on the icon for me now represents those dark nights when pain and failure and loss open the door to a deeper self-knowledge and a deeper relationship with God. Purity of heart can be a painful process: and perhaps it has to be so.   I think St. John's writings are about getting us to realise that the process of purifying the heart is about cutting out all the stuff, things, desires that get in the way of us becoming closer to God and that we have to understand that the pain of that process - carrying our cross - is an opportunity for growth.   I began to think that it is like the pain of someone who is trying to escape from an addiction.  I don't know much about it, but I do know from people who do know that it is a very painful process indeed.  So in a sense we are all addicts of some kind, and we can only really be ourselves when we are free from  our addictions.  Whatever they are.

As I thought about this I wondered if anyone had thought on similar lines and I soon came across a really excellent  book  by Francis Kelly Nemeck, OMI and Marie Theresa Coombes, a Hermit called : O Blessed Night.  (See HERE).  Imagine my delight that it was subtitled: 'Recovering from addiction, codependency and attachment based on the insight of St. John of the Cross and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin' !!   The authors show how close St. John and Teilhard are with regard to the role of pain and suffering in human individual and collective development/evolution.  The dark night for both becomes the blessed night.  I was not looking for convergence, but it came unbidden! I am only just reading it at the moment and  I need to think more about what they say: but the authors show how comparing the works of a saint and a scientist on the transformative effects of working through the 'dark night' can serve to illuminate both and also give us help on our advent journey.  The Sacred Heart is about pain.  But it is also about seeing pain  - and for Teilhard the pain of evolution - as transformative.  As we journey to Bethlehem we have to be asking ourselves what are we addicted to, what are we dependent on, and what are we attached to?  Sin is really just a form of addiction.  This advent I realise that  in order to become more centred on God we have to confront our own self-centeredness and our addictions.  I had a student many years ago who went through the 'hell' of  drug addiction but eventually he came through it. 'I'm clean!' he told me with a big smile on his face.  Like all addicts we  have to 'get clean'.  And that is not easy :  getting clean takes us to some dark places in our 'interior castle'.   But as Christians  we have the knowledge that the 'golden glow' radiating from the centre of the icon is giving us the energy to transform our dark nights into truly blessed nights.  At Christmas we should remember and pray for all those who are addicted, dependent or attached to things that keep them from the love of God.

Saint Maximilan Kolbe*, patron saint of drug addicts, pray for all those who are addicted this Christmas.

*Blessed John Paul called him the 'Patron Saint for our difficult century'  - and perhaps for an age which is full of addiction!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Third Week of Advent: Following the Sacred Heart to Mexico

Last week ( Friday 9th) we celebrated the feast of St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin or  St. Juan Diego.   An important day for the Church in the Americas and in particular in Mexico.  And today is the feast of  Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Having been to the basilica  in Mexico on a number of occasions I am especially touched by the message of Guadalupe.  I carry a small picture of the image of the Virgin with me , and as I write a I am overlooked by a  statue  that I bought several years ago when I visited the shrine with my wife.  It is also my sister's birthday, so all in all, it is an important day for me.  Everywhere you go in Mexico you see the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Sacred Heart - often together - and when I think of both my thoughts immediately transport me back to Mexico.  Above all I recall the simple devotion of the people to Mary and we here in Western Europe could learn much from  their devotion.  What strikes me is that you feel intensely close to Mary in Mexico and especially at Guadalupe and I try to remember how that feels when I see the famous image.    

 Guadalupe is a deeply spiritual place whose peace I treasure in my heart.   Reflecting on this I imagined what the Virgin might  have said to St. Juan Diego if he had asked her what he must do to become pure in heart.  Straight away I thought she would have said: 'Let God's will be done'.  And that seems to me to be the essence of Mary's response to the Angel Gabriel: she has the grace to simply let go of herself and allow God's will to be done in and through her.   That is the message of Guadalupe: we have to pray for the grace to  open our hearts to  God's love.  And that is the real miracle of Guadalupe: when God becomes the very centre and core of your existence.  

So on this day I pray for the people of Mexico and especially for all my friends in that great country that the Virgin will watch over and guide all those who trust in God's will. 

(Although  I  have to confess that  every time I see the image  I always think of Hillary Clinton's gaffe in 2009 when she asked ' who painted it ' and was told 'God!'  ( See here! )   )

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

As  St. Teresa and Teilhard remind us, the journey to the divine centre - to the Christ child- is a journey which involves a purification of our hearts: burning away all that gets in the way of our journey.   And it is appropriate that today we are reminded of the Virgin Mary as a person who was wholly and completely open to the God's love.   Mary is the second Eve who gave birth the the second Adam, whose heart literally beat within her body and soul: two hearts as one.   For this reason we keep in mind that the hearts of Mary and Jesus have a unique relationship.  And as we journey to Bethlehem for Jesus to be born again in our hearts we ask for her to pray for us this Advent.

I like the painting by Bracceso ( in the Louvre)  very much.  The Blessed Virgin is shown  looking rather anxious about what is taking place, but despite her fears she places all her trust in the will of God.  That seems to me the essence of a pure heart. (Click on pictures to enlarge.)

In December 1916, Teilhard reflected on today's feast: 

For me [it is].. the feast of ‘passive action’, the action that functions simply by the transmission through us of divine energy. Purity, in spite of outward appearances, is essentially an active virtue, because it concentrates God in us and on those who are subject to our influence. In our Lord, all modes of lower, restless, activity disappear within this single, luminous, function of drawing God to oneself, of receiving him and letting him penetrate one’s being. To be active in such a way and such a degree, our Lady must have been brought into existence in the very heart of grace, - for no later justification, no matter how immediate, could replace this constitutive, in-born, perfection of the purity that watched over the birth of her soul. It is thus that I see the Immaculate Conception. May our Lord give you and me too a little of her translucence, which is so favourable to God’s action. (Making of a Mind : 149 ) 

Earlier in April 1916 he completed his work 'Cosmic life'. In this essay he refers to Mary as ' the pearl of the cosmos and the link with the Incarnate Absolute.. Queen and Mother of all things, the true Demeter' (The Prayer of the Universe, Fontana, 1973: 91) .  Mary is the ‘unmoving light between the universe and God’ and shows the way to the divine centre ( aka the Sacred Heart) of creation through her utter openness – her active passivity - to the energy of God’s love. It is through the example of Mary that we can be united with the fullness of God.

He prayed, in December 1918,  that it is his dearest wish is that: 

God, through our Lady, may grant us to share in her purity and to have so ardent a passion for her, that we may be able to serve, in our own small way, to regenerate the world. We must have absolute faith in the power of this divine virtue to transform souls and spread itself; and we must see to it too, that the greatest interest of our life is to feel that we are growing a little more within her, and are serving to radiate her influence. (MM: 262)

On this day, Teilhard's prayer has a special resonance. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Second Week of Advent: Traveling to Bethlehem with St. Teresa and Teilhard

Teilhard and St. Teresa a have much in common as mystics and it is clear that Teilhard was a great admirer of her work.  And I think the difference between them is summed up in how they saw the divine centre.  Both describe the presence of God deep within our souls and reflect on how we may become closer to God in our hearts.  Both explore what prevents us from drawing closer to the ultimate union with Christ.  Both saw the journey into this divine centre as about becoming less and less centered upon ourselves and more and more centered on God.  Both see this as about a process of purifying our hearts.   Both see Christ as calling us into a loving union.  The differences perhaps are ones of language and poetry and of historical context.   Teilhard comments, for example, that: 'St. Teresa is made terrifyingly distant from us by her own religious imagery and a lack (common to her time) of all cosmic concern.. But she expresses, for that time, an attitude that must be preserved’. (cited in de Lubac’s  The Eternal Feminine, p 192.)   He also notes that ‘St. Teresa [was] : a typical case of an element undergoing reversal in Ω. Such an interior event is more important biologically than a huge war’ (de Lubac, p223)  So St Teresa is extremely important – despite the imagery and lack of cosmic concern!  For Teilhard the Omega point is another way at looking at the Sacred Heart, so I think  he is saying that  what St Teresa is describing and analyzing in her writings is the process of an individual becoming progressively centered on and united with the Sacred Heart.  Teilhard sees the Sacred Heart as energy or force  field pulling us towards the divine centre – the divine milieu.  This idea of Omega as the focal point is clearly very similar to what we find in St Teresa’s idea of having to journey deep into ourselves by listening to the call and following the light of the God within our hearts.   She sees this as a kind of personal evolution moving through a number of stages (7) and culminating in a union – or ‘marriage’ with Christ (Ω).  Like St. Teresa who uses the idea of a sphere in whose the centre or heart we find God, Teilhard also uses the same metaphor.  The divine milieu is a  sphere, centre,  or circle which is the focal point of all creation – rather than just the individual soul.  As he puts it: ‘The divine milieu is, in reality, a center..the ultra-active point of the universe’.  God is the universal milieu and ‘ the ultimate point upon which all reality converges’.  Teresa's writings for Teilhard lacked this cosmic idea of the divine centre: is is not only within us, but ahead of us. 

Hence, for Teilhard, the experience related by St. Teresa is an evolutionary event – of more significance than a ‘huge war’!!   I think that what Teilhard  is saying is that when we read St Teresa we have to see her experience on this cosmic scale: as a manifestation of the way in which the universe is being progressively ‘christified’.   I tend to agree with Teilhard, her language and imagery is very much of its time and place.  As I am not a 16th century Carmelite nun I do find it something that is not exactly appropriate for how I think and live, but even so I find that the idea of my journey to the Sacred Heart as essentially a journey of self knowledge and re-centering our self on Christ as providing great insight: Teilhard’s point was this journey was both an journey to the centre of our souls,  but also to the centre point at which all reality converges.

Thus the significance of St. Teresa for our journey to the heart of the Christ child in Bethlehem and in our own heart is of immense significance.  In  Human Energy he makes this point very clear:

The growth of the human collective consciousness at present taking place does not prevent there having been in the world before us (in a not too distant past) men better endowed as individuals than many of our contemporaries, nor would I affirm that the love of God did not have in Paul, Augustine or Teresa of Avila a certain potential richness that we should have difficulty in finding in any Christian living today. What I mean is that under the influence of rare passions like those of Paul, Augustine or Teresa, the theory and practice of total love have ever since Christ been continually clarified, transmitted and propagated. So, as a result of the two thousand years of mystical experience that support us, the con- tact we can make with the personal centre of the universe has gained as much in manifest riches as our possible contact with the world's natural spheres after two thousand years of science. Christianity, I would dare to say, is neither more nor less than a phylum' of love in nature. Now regarded from this point of view, not only is it not stationary, but it is so much alive that at this very moment we can directly observe it undergoing an extraordinary mutation by raising itself to a steadier consciousness of its universal value. ( Human Energy, Collins, 1969: 157)

St. Teresa ‘s mystical experience is therefore an important stage in the evolutionary journey of humanity.  As we appreciate that we can only encounter the Sacred Heart by undertaking a spiritual journey through our own souls, and purifying our own hearts, the message of St Teresa – and Teilhard becomes ever more indispensible for our journey. 

Teilhard himself was very much influenced by St. Teresa.  His essay ‘The Mystical Milieu’ written in 1917,  is regarded as being inspired by the Interior Castle.  (Read here in Writings in Time of War, pp 115-150)  Whereas St, Teresa gives us the idea of 7 stages  in the mystical journey to the divine centre, Teilhard  uses the idea of 5 circles of experience leading to a mystical experience of the divine centre.   I recommend taking both Teilhard’s essay 'The Mystical Milieu ' and St Teresa’s Interior Castle as useful 'maps' to take on the road to Bethlehem, and the journey to the centre of our hearts.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Second Week of Advent: St John the Baptist and Elijah

Ian's icon of Elias - visit the ELIAS website sitefor more information. 
What appears to have happened with the icon is that, as you read it through the year, it seems to open windows and doors into the theology of the Sacred Heart.   It is rather like an advent calendar in which little windows open out to reveal aspects of the Christmas story.  The icon in this way opens windows into the Sacred Heart as a 'treasury' of knowledge and wisdom.  St. John the Baptist has become such a window of late.  As I have been reflecting on St. Teresa and the Carmelite tradition of the pure heart, St. John in the icon now becomes a doorway through which I can prayerfully explore the Carmelite tradition which is centred on the figure of Elijah.  When we remember that the Angel Gabriel (above, left holding the cross)  tells us that St. John comes with 'the spirit and power of Elijah and will turn the hearts of Israel back to God,(Luke: 1: 16-17) the icon gives us yet another perspective.   Elijah - or Elias - is a popular subject for iconographers and it is interesting to compare Ian's icon of the prophet  being taken up to heaven with  our Sacred Heart icon. We see that he has used the same geometric design for the wheels of the chariot as for the whirling nimbus around the Sacred Heart.   I think when we read the two icons as 'parallel texts'  the whirling nimbus and the chariot wheels serve to represent the the energy of God's love. It is interesting to note in this regard that Teilhard uses the story of Elias being taken up to heaven to convey precisely this idea: 'The Spiritual power of matter'.  (READ HERE - pp 25-33) It is a wonderful piece. As I am exploring St. Teresa's writings I find that Teilhard's mysticism  seems to  have a good deal in common with her - and that is a new discovery for me!  I shall be writing about this in due course.  As a first thought  I feel that whereas St. Teresa - and other Carmelites  focus on Elijah listening to God calling to him in the gentle breeze by the entrance of his cave(1 Kings, 9-14), Teilhard focuses on God in the whirlwind in 2 Kings: 1-18.   And I think this difference in focus tells us much about their  mysticism.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Last first Friday of 2011

Heart Speaks to Heart, Sr Mary Stephen CRSS*
Going to mass every first Friday of the month is a traditional way to express devotion to the Sacred Heart.   And today was a very special day for me as it is the last one of a year which has been devoted to Heart of Jesus. Over the past year, using the icon as a focus, I have just allowed things to unfold as they will, rather than impose my own agenda.   This is not really me, but letting go in this way has been  rewarding in so many ways.   Because of a funeral, the readings at mass today were different to those as set out in the Roman Missal. But the reading today from St. Paul could simply not have been more appropriate for me.

Out of his infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then planted in love, you will with all the saints have strength to gasp the breadth  and the length, and the height and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.  Glory be to him whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen. 
 Ephesians, 3: 16-21

As I listened to St. Paul, the words of St Teresa and St John of the Cross, which I have been exploring recently, and Teilhard's approach to the Sacred Heart  came together like two spotlights overlapping one another in the darkness.  This journey has turned out to be very much about strengthening  my 'hidden self' deep inside my 'inner castle'. It has been about listening to the call of the Sacred Heart so that Christ may live in my heart.   Reading the  icon has lead me to realize that - as the 'delight of all the saints' - the Sacred Heart needs to be discovered with the help of all the saints who have taken delight in the heart of Jesus.  At the same time, I discovered that with Teilhard as my guide to a cosmic and universal Christ, I did not go off into some new age direction, so much as it has enabled me to  re-discover the age old teachings and traditions of the Church. ( So thank you Ian.)   I am now ever more convinced that this is what  Teilhard wanted above all: a rediscovery of the meaning of the Sacred Heart  and an enriching and deepening our understanding of the mystery of God's love and mercy.  The Sacred Heart is calling us to participate in and become one with  the divine centre which is both the centre of our very souls (burning and glowing in our 'hidden selves')  but also the glowing and radiating centre of the entire cosmos: Christ Omega  who will complete us as individuals and bring all creation into 'the utter fulness of God'.

* I have been looking at this lovely  banner by Sr. Mary for quite a while, but I really only 'got it' today!