Thursday, 24 July 2014

St Phillip Evans and St John Lloyd.

Although we celebrated the Feast of St. Mary Magdelene on the 22nd July, Catholics in Wales are also mindful of two saints who were martyred in Cardiff on the 22nd July 1679 – St. Philip Evans , who was, like Teilhard a Jesuit,  and St John Lloyd. ( Their feast day was moved to yesterday - the 23rd July. )  At a time when their was a persecution of Catholics in Wales, the two men were found guilty of being Catholic priests – and therefore of Treason against the crown.  This was at the same time as when St Claude de la Colombiere was also arrested ( 1678) for the same crime – being a Catholic priest.  St  Claude, of course, was released and allowed to return to France.  Like other Catholics, they fell victim of  the anti- Catholic sentiment stirred up by a fictional plot propagated by one Titus Oates that Catholics were planning to assassinate the King ( Charles II).  There was, of course no such plot – just a plot to kill Catholic priests.

From stained glass window, Catholic Church Tenby
Read about St Philip and St John here and here.  They were canonised in 1970 by Paul VI. 

Their deaths were unbelievably terrible – because they had committed treason they were first partially hung, their insides  ‘drawn out’ while they were still alive and then  cut into quarters.   St  John Lloyd had to watch as his brother priest was executed first, and he followed after. They underwent this cruel procedure showing absolute confidence in Christ, and happy to die for their faith.  I always think that their blood made Cardiff a holy city.  The place where they were executed is marked by a simple plaque and is located in the Roath area of the City – at a very busy (noisy and dirty) junction of Richmond Road, Albany Road, City Road, Crwys Road, and Mackintosh Place.  Even today it is known as ‘death junction’ – because of the high number of road accidents!  In those days it was the place of public execution. And known as ‘Gallows field’- and  ‘Heol-y-Plwcca' – that is road to rough or scrub land ‘. At the time when our two Cardiff saints were killed it was the very opposite of a holy place – it was un-sanctified ground where murderers  and the like were unceremoniously buried.

Read about 'death junction' here. 

In recent years there has been a revival of interest in 'holy places' in Britain.  That is all to the good.  However, you will not find this part of Cardiff in 'Sacred Wonders of Britain' or 'Britain's holiest places'Here and Here  But ‘death junction’ should be listed amongst them: indeed it should be amongst the most important of them.  Stand by the plaque and look around and you will see little that one could describe as beautiful. It is not a place that anyone would go and visit.  It is no holy well,  or  ancient Cathedral.  There is nothing of a 'new age spirituality' here at this crossroads in Roath. You cannot sit quietly and contemplate and pray. You would not take a photograph to treasure as a souvenir of your visit to Cardiff.  A holy place or sacred space is usually seen as a ‘thin space’: a place where heaven and earth feel very close to one another.  A place where a person has a strong sense of the presence of the divine.

Death junction in Cardiff , however, is in so many respects more sacred and holy than those places generally regarded as ‘thin spaces’ which make people feel good or revive that drooping spirits.  For here, a place which saw so much death and evil and in which two saints were brutally butchered we stand in a place of the skull – a Welsh Golgotha. A Cardiff sacred site that has not been sanctified by a convent or place of prayer or filmed for a glossy TV program on holy places.   Here, in this place, two men felt very close to God and such was their faith in God’s love and mercy that they went willingly and joyfully to meet evil and overcome it.  Through their faith these two men sanctified a place which was a bye-word for death and evil.  When we stand amidst the traffic of  the old gallows field we are not, apparently, in a 'divine landscape'. We are not in the midst of a wood sacred to the ancient druids. We do not stand in an enchanted space.  We are standing, however, in a profoundly spiritual place - but not the kind of spiritual space for those after a beautiful experience.  Amidst all the noise and traffic fumes we stand in a space which gives us none of the 'experiences' we associate with holy places.  But here is the contradiction: as Jesuits like St Phillip Lloyd and Teilhard understood, we are called to see Christ in all things.  We stand in space, but also in time.  The blue plaque is a prompt to step back in time, and recall the faith and courage of these men.  We see Christ in the beauty of the world - as captured by TV producers and presenters - but we also see Christ in the ugly and the ordinary.  We see Christ is all things bright and beautiful, but also in the dark and the disgusting.  So, we should take joy and hope from the fact that it was from this corner of what was a killing field in 1679, two men from Wales made their journey of faith from Cardiff to heaven.  They went from darkness and despair, to light, love and hope.   

We are not all called to be martyred like Saint John Lloyd and St Phillip Evans, but we are all called to close the gap between heaven and earth: as we say in the Lord’s prayer ,‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’  When we do God’s will, we  help to make even the most evil places into sacred spaces.  So, if you ever find yourself in this holy place stop by the blue sign, look around and ask these two great saints to pray for all those who are persecuted for being followers of Christ.  Ask them to pray for all those who do not live in holy places, but places which have been spaces within which human beings have lived lives devoid of love and peace and full of hate and violence.  Pray and ask their help so that our hearts may be open to the fire of the Holy Spirit. 

St Phillip Evans, who played his harp in prison as he awaited his execution, play your harp in heaven for us and pray for us. 

St. John Lloyd, who admitted on the scaffold that he had 'never been a good speaker', pray for us  that we might find the courage to speak the gospel to a world that has so many death junctions. 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

St. Mary Magdalene

Today we remember  Mary Magdalene. Over the centuries, the story of this great saint has, of course, been the subject of  various interpretations.  Far a long time Mary of Magdala was confused with other Marys and other women: most notably the unnamed woman ( supposedly a prostitute) who washed and kissed Jesus's feet mentioned in Luke ( 7 : 36-5) as well as
the attentive Mary of Bethany ( sister of Martha and Lazarus) - who chose the 'better part'.  She is mentioned by name in several places in the gospels- in Luke and Mark as being a woman who had been freed from 7 evil sprits - or perhaps  7 deadly sins. ( Luke 8. 2; and Mark 16.9)  It is this woman who was healed of evil spirits - 'delived from evil ' - who was to be with him at the foot of the cross and who was first to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection who appears on the icon of the Sacred Heart.  But  this image in many ways is a composite of three very different women: the sinner who comes weeping to kiss the feet of Christ; the women who sits at the feet of Christ and listens to the word of God as her sister attends to housework and cooking; and the woman who is freed from  7 evil spirits, and who stands at the foot of the cross and is the first to see the risen Lord. By tradition she is therefore a prostitute, a woman who sits with the men and becomes an apostle, and a woman who is freed from the grip of evil and opens her heart to Jesus utterly and completely.  Whatever the historical facts of the matter Mary Magdalene becomes the Apostle to the Apostles.  Perhaps, however,  what matters is not that we are not quite sure who she is, one thing is plain enough. The icon shows a woman who - because of the love of Christ - is a new creation.

 The reading at mass today from St Paul, (2 Corithians 5:14-17) speaks of the love of Christ overwhelms us and that those who are in Christ are new creations.  Mary Magdalene is - as is clear from the gospel account in John (20: 1-2. 11-18) -  someone who is over-whelmed by the love of Jesus.  She arrives at the tomb whilst it is still dark, and finding his body gone, she weeps.  She weeps because she cannot see his dead body.  Recently,  seeing the poor people who  have lost loved ones in the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17,  our hearts go out to anyone whose loss is made all the worse by the fact that they do not know where the body of their loved one is.   Mary Magdalene weeps like this in the darkness: she weeps not because Jesus is dead, but because his body is missing. And then out of this darkness she sees what she believes to be a gardener : perhaps he will know more than the men inside the tomb?  Weeping from  the very core of her being, she begs the gardener to tell her where he has put him. And then, the darkness lifts: Jesus, her beloved teacher, his alive. She hurries off to tell the apostles.

The devotion to the Sacred Heart has, for many centuries, drawn upon the Song of Songs ( 3: 1-4).  It is fitting that at mass today we hear words which capture the sense of love we find in John, chapter twenty. The Song of  Songs describes a woman searching for him 'whom her heart loves'. She searches through the City streets, and asks the night watchmen if they have seen who her heart loves.  And then she find the love of her heart.   And that is the image we contemplate in the icon: the image of a woman who, in the darkness, sought the love of her heart.  It is a woman who has been freed from sin and the power of evil.  It is the image of a broken hearted woman who wept for the love of Jesus and who sees the risen Christ through her tears. Opposite her is Adam - the old creation.  We turn and look again on the new creation that lives no longer for themselves, but in the love of Jesus. We see a woman is no longer enslaved to 7 deadly sins, but one who is now full of the 7  waters of eternal life. Eve brought death to Adam, Mary Magdalen brings the good news of the new life in Christ.  Whatever our sins, Mary Magdalene reminds us that when we humbly open our hearts and ask for mercy we too can be made into a new creation.  However dark it is, we can search and we can find Jesus.

As we prayed at mass today:

O God, whose Only Begotten Son entrusted Mary Magdalene before all others with announcing the great joy of the Resurrection, grant we pray that through her intercession and example we may proclaim the living Christ and Come to see him reigning in your glory. 

Lord, instil in us that persevering love with which Saint Mary Magdalene clung resolutely to Christ her Master.  Who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Henri Nouwen and the Sacred Heart

Henri Nouwen is one of the most widely appreciated Catholic writers of the 20th century – and not just among Catholics.  So, what has Nouwen brought to the modern devotion to the Sacred Heart?  Now, of course, Henri Nouwen is, for some Catholics, a red rag to a bull – rather like Teilhard. And this is not the place to go into the case for and against.  Here we just want to explore  how his writings can help promote a  broader understanding of the  Heart of Jesus. For me his writings have deepened my own devotion and I regard him as having made an significant contribution to fostering the kind  of ‘spirituality of the heart’ which is so necessary in  the dark, greedy and violent world in which we live.   A world that needs the light of Christ’s heart to illuminate and teach us that without love the world will be consumed by pride, greed, anger and the other deadly sins.

The theme of the heart runs throughout Nouwen’s  writings, although reference to the Sacred Heart actually came quite late – in the mid-1980s.  In  his book (published in 1981), The Way of the Heart : Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry, for example, he explores what we, in the modern world can learn from the Desert Fathers.  His conclusion is beautifully simple:  we need to cultivate silence in our lives and endeavour to live lives of unceasing prayer.  What noisy world needs is love: and that means we have to find silence in our lives.  Silence is our great defence against the noise of the world.

I read The Way of the Heart  a few weeks ago on the London underground and reflected on the ‘suicidal journey’ which Nouwen believed the world was heading.  As I was reading the section dealing with silence and the importance of finding silence in our hearts and in our lives I looked around and observed that most people were listening to their mobile devices.  Ours is a world that is full of noise and in which silence is believed to be as a threat or a problem we can fix by a bit of technology: so we can have music wherever we go.   The lack of silence is, I have come to realize is really killing us slowly and most certainly.  What the Desert Fathers appreciated was that human beings have a deep and profound need for silence.  Because, it is only in silence can we hear God.  Perhaps the unspiritual and Godless lives people lead is because they have little or no opportunity to have silence.  We live in a world in which communication just means endless streams of words and noise:  in fact, which live in an age of mass in-communication!  We live in a world which has little or no time for silence, and therefore little time or space for prayer.

The Desert Fathers, Nouwen argues, believed that we had to live a life on unceasing prayer.  This unceasing prayer was the prayer of the heart.  Real prayer , he observes, comes from the silence in the very core of our being: real prayer comes from the heart. It is the silence of our hearts we meet God. and hear His word. It is in our hearts where God’s Spirit dwells.  And our hearts are ‘the source of all physical , emotional, intellectual, volitional and moral energies’.  So for Nouwen, our lives have to be centred on our hearts.  Quoting Macarius the Great, Nouwen observes that the chief task of  a monk is to ‘ enter into his heart’.  If our hearts are to speak to the heart of God, we must know our own  hearts. We must enter into the silence of our heart: for it is there we will find the kingdom of God.

This means, says Nouwen, that our prayer life must be about an absolute surrender to the mystery of God.  And this is why the ‘prayer of  the heart’ is so important as a way of entering into our hearts and into the heart of God: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God , have  mercy on me , a sinner.’

For the Desert Fathers this simple and unceasing prayer was a powerful way of finding the silence than enables us to enter into our heart and thence into the heart of God. Through this ‘prayer of the heart’ we can stand in the presence of the Living God.  Nouwen has much to say about this form of prayer, but this passage in particular caught my attention as it resonates very strongly with Teilhard’s sense of the Sacred Heart.

When we say to people, ‘I will pray for you’, we make a very important commitment.  The sad thing is that this remark often remains nothing but  a well – meant expression of concern.  But when we learn to descend with our mind into our heart, then all those who have become part of our lives are led into the healing presence of God and touched by him in the center of our being.  We are speaking here about a mystery for which words are inadequate. It is the mystery that the heart, which is the centre of our being , is transformed by God into his own heart, a heart large enough to embrace the entire universe.  Through prayer we can carry in our heart  all human pain and sorrow, all conflicts and agonies, all torture and war, all hunger, loneliness, and misery, not because of some great psychological or emotional capacity, but because God’s heart has become one with ours.  The Way of the Heart, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1981: 87

Reading this I am drawn to the icon of the Sacred Heart.  As we reflect on the centre of the icon, I feel that the icon captures this sense of the heart of God as transformative: it is large enough to embrace the entire universe! And yet, it is small enough to become our home.

Given the place of the heart in Nouwen’s writings, it is surprising that it took him quite a while before he turned to the Sacred Heart, per se.  How this came about is quite interesting – because his rediscovery of the Sacred Heart began with an icon. As he notes in Heart Speaks to Heart:

“. . . It all began with an icon Robert Lentz  OFM, had made for me portraying John the Evangelist leaning against Jesus’ breast in the heavenly Jerusalem. Called ‘The Bridegroom’, the icon best expresses my own desire to develop a more intimate relationship with Jesus.”

Thus his journey towards the Sacred Heart began with an icon of the beloved apostle, John.

He had copies of the icon made and gave one of them to the mother of Jean Vanier – the founder of ‘L’Arche.’ .  Pauline Vanier – ( left)  – loved the icon and also had a deep devotion to the Sacred Heart.   However, Nouwen admitted that he never felt any desire to pray to the Sacred Heart as he associated it with ‘ Nineteenth –century piety and the statues in which that piety was expressed had kept me away from the devotion that for many people had been very nurturing. (Heart Speaks to Heart. p 11 Kindle edition).  Despite her belief that he should write something about the Sacred Heart, Nouwen confessed that he was not inspired so to do!  But Madame Vanier  (Read about this formidable woman HERE) was persistent with her request that he write about the Sacred Heart. Reading about Pauline Vanier, I can quite understand how difficult it must have been to ignore her suggestion!  She was a remarkable women. Her mother's spiritual  director had been Fr. Almire Pichon, SJ - who had also been the spiritual director of St Therese of Lisieux!  (READ about here) From Fr. Pichon her mother had learnt the value of devotion to the Sacred Heart, and Pauline Vanier, like her mother, was to have an intense devotion to the Sacred Heart. ( And she no doubt passed this on to her son, Jean Vanier  - for whom the heart has a central place in his writings.)  With the encouragement of this woman who had a deep love of the heart of Jesus, Nouwen  eventually gave in to her request - which she believed came from God. In due course he felt that he was ready to get down to it as he celebrated Holy Week  with Trappists in Holland, Manitoba - and the result was subsequently published 1985.

His original plan was to get down to reading a selection of books suggested  by Annice Callahan  RSCJ, which he never actually got around to reading!  One book did move him, Pedro Arrupe’s SJ.  In Him Alone is Our Hope.  This particular book ‘moved’ him deeply and ‘stirred up a  new desire to enter more fully into the mystery of God’s love as lived out in the passion and resurrection of Jesus.’ (Looking through the blog I am surprised that I have not discussed Arrupe’s book on the Sacred Heart! It is indeed an inspiring book and I will return to it again.)

The impact of Arrupe’s book seems to have changed his focus: Madame Vanier’s suggestion that he write about the Sacred Heart now appeared to be more of  an invitation to ‘let the heart of Jesus touch my own heart deeply’, and furthermore to ‘be healed; by the experience of writing.  He came to realize  that  he had ‘come to pray ‘ and  let his wounds become ‘one with the wounds of my crucified and risen Lord.’

Heart Speaks to Heart is the account of that rediscovery of the Sacred Heart and should be read by all who wish to ‘enter more fully into the mystery  God’s love’.  GO here.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The feast of St. Thomas the Apostle.

Entrance to Church of St Thomas, Jersey
The feast of St. Thomas the Apostle on on the 3rd July -  the week after the celebration of the Sacred Heart  - was a fitting time to reflect on the place of ‘doubting’ Thomas in the history of the Sacred Heart.   The image of  Thomas – ‘called the twin’ – placing his hand into the side of Jesus is very well known  and is found in some of the earliest Christian art.  Representations vary, with some showing St Thomas just looking, and other touching, and others with Thomas placing his fingers into to the wound.  Some, show Jesus holding or guiding the hand Thomas's hand. It is a common subject in iconography as in other forms of religious art.

No better introduction to St Thomas can be found than that written by Benedict XVI, read HERE. 

For me one of the most striking things about the passage is that Jesus says to Thomas 'Give me your hand: put it in my side’.   His response is to proclaim , Dominus Meus et Deus Meus, ‘My Lord and my God.’   In this context we also recall something that Jesus also said to Thomas when he later asked ‘ Lord, we do not now where you are going so how are we to know the way?'  To which Jesus replies: ‘ I am the way, the truth and the life’. When Jesus invites Thomas to place his hand in the wound made in side by the spear that pierced his heart, he tells Thomas to hold his hand.  He holds Thomas’ hand in his hand to guide it to his wounded heart.  Jesus is saying: ‘here is the way, the truth and the life’.  'I am the word of God made flesh and I love you with my heart – my wounded heart’. 'Learn from my gentle and humble heart.'  

One of the most moving reflections on this episode in the Gospel of  John  is to be found in Henri Nouwen’s little book on the Sacred Heart: Heart Speaks to Heart. Here is what he says: 

Whenever I touch your broken heart, I touch the hearts of your broken people, and whenever I touch the hearts of your broken people, I touch your heart.  Your broken heart and the broken heart of the world are one…Lord Jesus , you always call me closer to your wounded heart. There you want me to know true joy and true peace… To Thomas who heard your voice and touched your pierced side, you said, ‘You believe because you can see me.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ There, O dear Lord, is the mystery of your love.  I have not seen you  and yet  I truly see you every time I look at the broken bodies of my fellow human beings.  I have not heard you and yet I truly hear you every time I hear the cries uttered by men, women and children in pain.   I have not touched you, and yet  I truly touch  you every time I touch all those who come to me in their pain, I see, I hear and touch the heart of humanity, your humanity, the humanity of all the people embraced by your love.  Thank you , Jesus, for your heart.  Thank you for showing me your heart. Thank you for letting me believe more every day, hope more every day and love more every day. My heart is little, fearful and very timid. It will always be so. But you say ‘Come to my heart. My heart is gentle and humble and very broken like yours. Do not be afraid. Come and let your heart find rest in mine and trust that all will be well.’  I want to come, Jesus, and be with you.  Here I am, Lord, take my heart and let it become a heart filled with your love.’  Heart Speaks to Heart: Three Gospel Meditations on Jesus, Kindle edition, pp 54-57

Such inspiring and powerful words from Henri Nouwen!

A painting which I find is helpful to reflect upon the story of Thomas is the one by Caravaggio. There are, of course,  numerous images to choose from  which to explore Thomas's doubt,  but this painting has given me most food for thought and prayer. 

Jesus takes Thomas’s hand firmly and allows him to touch his wounded side from which poured the blood and water of his pierced heart.  Jesus is the source of light in the picture - the light of the world. Thomas is pointing towards the Heart of his Lord and and his God - and the other apostles look intently at the way, the truth, the light and the life. 

Caravaggio pulls us into the space as firmly as Christ directs the hand of Thomas into the wound.  We too, like the apostles, are drawn into contemplating the wounded heart of Christ. We, like them, stand in awe at the the mystery of God's love.   I think that perhaps we are all Thomas’s twin (for the name of his twin sibling is not recorded).  In this painting, we are the twin who is absent – who is called to believe without seeing, hearing and touching.  And yet Jesus is still asking us to put our hand in his, and have faith in his love for us.  He invites us to give us our hand that he may guide us. He calls us to  give him our heart so that we may love him. He desires that we, like Thomas, touch his heart-  so that we may be one with him.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The feast of the Immaculate heart of Mary

Since the feast of the Immaculate Heart – which followed the feast of the Sacred Heart  - last week I have been thinking a good deal about the heart of Mary.  The devotion to the hearts of Jesus and Mary have long been linked in terms of  both prayers and imagery.  As I write  I am looking at an image that used to be on my  parent's walls which shows Jesus and Mary displaying their hearts.  But, in truth I have never ‘got it’! But I think since Saturday I have begun to understand.

They key passages in scripture about the heart of  Mary are in Luke tells us that Mary kept all the events of Jesus’s early life in her heart : she treasured them and pondered over them.  Luke thinks that this is so important that he tells us twice!  She spent  all of her life after the Annunciation pondering what all these ‘things’ meant.  As St. John Paul observes in Rosarium Virginis Mariae, “No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary. The eyes of her heart already turned to him at the Annunciation, when she conceived him by the power of the Holy Spirit” (11). Read HERE.

From the moment that she conceived Jesus in her heart – when she said yes to the angel Gabriel – Mary began a life of complete and utter trust in God, and in her son, Jesus.  She did not know what it all meant, but she treasured all the events in the life of Jesus and reflected on them.  She is puzzled by what is happens  - Why me? How can it be? Why did Jesus go off on his own ? What did Jesus mean  by telling them he must be about his father’s business?  So many questions. And yet, such was the power of divine grace within her, she was content to trust in God and be simply a handmaiden of the Lord. She was humble enough to let things be done according to God’s plan.   She was content to let all these things that filled her mind with questions to rest in her heart.  And in her heart she would reflect upon and contemplate the profound mystery of God’s love.

Mary  shows us the way to the heart of her son, because she knows it better than anyone.  We get to know and love the heart of Jesus by treasuring  and pondering over the heart of Jesus as what Pope Francis called the ' highest human expression of Divine love.'

We have a print of the Virgin which we like very much (see left). It is by the early Italian (Venetian) Renaissance - Late Gothic artist Antonio Vivarini (1440-1480  ) - entitled La Vergine che legge- The Reading Virgin.   ( He some times signed his work as Antonio of Murano. )

 I think it is an image which beautifully captures this sense of the meaning of the immaculate heart as providing a doorway into the mystery of God’s love and  mercy.  The Virgin is shown reading scripture and treasuring the Word of God in her heart.  Jesus, of course, is the 'Word of God, made flesh'.  (Her flesh.)  We, like Mary, are called to trust in God’s love and treasure and ponder in our hearts all the things that have been revealed to us.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death.