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Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

How to pray

How to pray: a sermon about prayer, given to university students; and in particular about the importance of setting aside a small amount of time each day for personal prayer. See the post here at Jericho Tree0011.

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A new poster and prayer card have been produced by the National Office for Vocation. You can find the resources here. Here is the poster:

Capture 1

 

I like it a lot – it’s full of life and joy. No poster can tell the whole story of priesthood or religious life; but this captures something of the vitality and joy, of the ‘being for others’ and ‘being with Christ’, that is at the heart of these vocations.

You can download the pdf here and print copies at home. Why not stick a copy on the fridge door to remind you to pray for this intention over the next few days or weeks. And if you are feeling brave, why not put a copy on the kitchen window (facing outwards!), or somewhere equally public – it might get a good conversation going with the neighbours.

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I was in Leeds last week, leading a study day for some of the clergy there. The topic was ‘Prayer in the Catechism’, looking at the history and theology of Part 4 of the Catechism, and sharing some practical tips about how to use this in teaching and catechesis.

prayer mobile nyc by cabbit

The text from the Catechism is here (the first section of Part 4 on Christian Prayer).

Here is the audio of the three talks if you are interested.

Talk 1: The importance of Part 4 (Christian Prayer) in the theological structure of the Catechism.

Listen here.

Download here.

Talk 2: The history and structure of Part 4

Listen here.

Download here.

Talk 3: The theology of Part 4

Listen here.

Download here.

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This is a great prayer initiative, just in case you haven’t seen it yet. Adopt a Cardinal.

Adopt

You go to the site, give minimal details (name, email), and then they give you a randomly generated cardinal to pray for over the next few days and weeks (I presume he is randomly generated; I’ve no reason to think they are stacking it in some strange way!).

Why bother? This is just my quick interpretation of why I got so excited! (1) Prayer is good, full stop. (2) ‘Focussed’ prayer is good; when you name things and name people; when you speak like a child and ask the Lord to help a particular person with a particular need. (3) Making a concrete commitment to pray is good, even if it’s through a computer and a website. (4) It makes you realise you are praying with the whole Body of Christ, with Christians throughout the world. (5) It makes you feel personally involved in the whole process of the forthcoming election, more connected. (6) It opens you up to the life of the Church in a completely unexpected way: my cardinal is Polycarp Pengo, Archbishop of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I’ve never heard of him; never been there; yet I feel profoundly linked to him already. (7) It’s fun!

And no, I don’t think it’s about praying your cardinal into the Papacy; but praying that they are blessed by the Lord at this time, and truly open to the Holy Spirit in all that they do and decide.

This is the blurb from the website:

What about you? Do you feel the same way too?

  • Are you infinitely thankful to God for having given us such a wonderful, wise and benevolent pope in Benedict XVI.?
  • Do you sincerely hope that the Church will be granted a worthy successor: a rock of faith, a leader open to the Holy Spirit, a pope prayerful and holy?
  • Do you as an important part of the Body of Christ wish to contribute through the power of your prayers so that the Holy Spirit may guide, protect and enlighten our Cardinals when they determine the next successor of St. Peter?

You now have the opportunity to actively be part of this providential endeavour by having a Cardinal assigned to you, who you will support through your prayer and intercession during the coming weeks before and during the conclave and for three days following the election.

As I type there are 83,350 people signed up.

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By chance I was in my home town of Harpenden on Sunday, and after the 9.45 Mass many people from the Catholic church went down the road to the United Service of Remembrance round the War Memorial on Church Green.

It’s years since I have been present for this. I have memories of a few hundred people scattered around the green in the centre of town. But this Sunday there must have been a crowd of over two thousand people, spilling onto the surrounding roads. Perhaps it has been growing over the years; perhaps it was particularly large this year.

It was very moving, and very Christian! Prayers, hymns, readings. The names of the dead were read out. And it’s so easy to forget, but the whole town was gathered round a standing cross (see the old postcard above). I’ve wandered across the green a thousand times over the years (we moved to Harpenden when I was four), but I’ve hardly stopped to reflect that the focus of unity for the town was and still is the Cross of Jesus Christ. And when people want to reflect on death and life, remember their loved ones, or just come together as a community conscious of itself and its history – they gather round the Cross.

I’m not suggesting that everyone there had faith, or even that Christianity is on the increase in Hertfordshire (who knows?). But the huge crowds present this Sunday made me wonder if there is a deepening hunger for community and for a sense of connection with those in the past. Maybe we are more aware of our military than we used to be; maybe it’s the patriotism of the Jubilee or the communitarianism of the Olympics and the Paralympics; maybe we just long to feel more connected.

This was civic religion at its best: people still broadly connected with the nation’s Christian faith, even though there would be various shades of belief and unbelief; people finding that this faith gives them a unity with each other, and a way of making sense of their human struggles, that perhaps they wouldn’t find in any other place.

And a final note about purgatory: It was an ecumenical service, but I was fascinated how each prayer spoken was actually a prayer for the dead. We kept hearing phrases like: ‘May they find the fulfilment in God they were longing for’; ‘May they rest in peace’; ‘May they come face to face with the Lord’. All of these ‘may they…’ prayers suggest, theologically, that there is still something to be achieved or worked out for those who have died. In other words, this wasn’t just a service of remembrance – whatever the service sheet suggested – it was also a service of prayer for the dead. I don’t think this was very conscious or theologically explicit, but it shows how hard it is to just remember the dead without actually praying for them – at a psychological level. And a Catholic would add that this makes theological sense as well!

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When I was reflecting on the Year of Faith in Cardiff, I spoke about the power of witness. I gave the “40 Days for Life” movement as an example of what this can involve, and how effective it can be.

In case you haven’t heard of it before, 40 Days for Life is a peaceful prayer vigil that takes place outside a number of abortion clinics in the UK and throughout the world. At this very moment, people are keeping vigil. It’s not a protest or a political campaigning group but a form of witness.

There are three aspects to the project: prayer and fasting, education, and offering practical support and alternatives to women and men who are seeking abortion with an unplanned pregnancy.

40 Days for Life is not about trying to win an argument. There has been a feeling amongst many within the pro-life movement that the arguing, the dialogue, the political campaigning, have only taken us so far. It shows the limits of dialogue; not the futility – just the limits.

So there was a need for another strategy: witness.

First, the witness of prayer. Not just private prayer, which is hugely important, but also praying in public. With this public prayer, part of the purpose is to show that prayer matters, that there is another way of changing hearts, that we’re not alone in our struggles and sufferings – but that God is with us. This may sound a bit ‘pharisaical’. Didn’t Jesus ask us to shut the door and pray in private? Yes, but he also prayed with and for people, drawing them into his own prayer, and witnessing to the central importance of that prayer for all people.

Second, there is the witness of truth: offering information, leaflets, education, conversations, insights, etc. Sharing the simple scientific facts about human development; the physical, psychological and moral dangers of abortion; the practical alternatives. Being prepared to speak about this in public, to help those who are asking questions. And always to speak with patience, kindness and peacefulness; sometimes in the face of aggression or anger.

And third, and most importantly, there is the witness of charity, of love, in the 40 Days for Life vigil: offering real, practical support to women who are considering an abortion, very often because they have no support from anywhere else, and feel pressured into this choice by others or by circumstances. So this is not just the offer of leaflets or kind words, but very concrete assistance: helping them to find a supportive advice centre, giving them possibilities of financial help if they need it, even offering them a place to stay during the pregnancy and birth if they have been pushed out of their own home.

40 Days for Life really changes lives. I don’t just mean the number of women who decide to keep their babies because of the vigil (although, by the grace of God, there are many of these). I also mean the powerful and often unexpected effects of this witness on so many others: men and women who walk by and feel drawn into conversation, many of whom will have been touched by abortion in some way, because at last they have found someone who understands the sadness and the seriousness of it; people drawn to pray, simply through the witness and faith of those who are praying on the street corner there; people who stop to talk and enquire and even disagree – some of them having their minds changed, softened, or challenged in a non-aggressive way.

Another miracle is the effect that the vigil has had on so many of those who work in the abortion clinics. Over the years, internationally, quite a few abortion workers have had powerful conversion experiences, or small changes of heart, that have led them to leave the clinics and find work elsewhere. This isn’t because they have been pressured into this, but because through the witness of those on the vigil they have had the opportunity of seeing others who see things differently. The witness to life gives another way of looking at the world, another possibility, that awakens something deep in their hearts, and actually fits with what they secretly believed all along.

I am not putting this forward as an ideal model of what Christian witness looks like, and my purpose is not actually to open up the life issues themselves. I simply use this as one example of what witness can involve: prayer, words, and the work of practical charity and love. And I hope it gives an encouragement to all of us to see how powerful our witness can be.

[For more information about 40 Days for Life, see the international site here, and the London site here. I shared my own experiences of the vigil in this earlier post.]

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I’ve just spent five days in a field a mile outside Walsingham, where the annual Youth 2000 summer festival took place last weekend. This little village, as one of the speakers said, is not just in the middle of nowhere; it’s on the very outer fringes of nowhere, and it’s a miracle that anyone gets there at all. (Apologies for this very London-centric view of North Norfolk…)

A glimpse of the congregation before Mass

One of the young people arriving said they had got into a conversation in a shop on the way, and when they said they were going to a youth festival, the other person asked, ‘So who is headlining then?’ No-one could agree on the best answer: Jesus, the Bishop, or the Youth 2000 Music Ministry.

It’s a time of grace, of witnessing the beauty of the Christian faith, and of real conversion. It’s also a very ordinary experience of the Church, and by that I mean there is nothing extraordinary about the content of the weekend. It’s just Catholicism pure and simple. That’s probably why it ‘works’, and why it makes such a profound impression on people. The Eucharist at the very centre; dignified and joyful worship; devotion to Our Lady; the teaching of the Catholic Church presented in a straightforward, unapologetic, inspiring and practical way; the power of conversion through the sacrament of confession; the challenge of connecting faith with everyday life, study, work, relationships; the call to vocation, witness and service; prayer, music, food, fellowship, fun.

Keeping vigil during the night before the Exposed Blessed Sacrament

You see young people serving other young people, and witnessing to their own personal faith. It was striking, as well, how many people were here for the first time – brought by someone who had come before and wanted to share the experience. You see a wonderful integration of the different vocations of lay people, priests, and religious and consecrated people. One of the lovely small innovations this year was creating a cafe-style atmosphere in the dining tent, so that people could relax together in the evening when the services had finished. Another innovation was the hot showers!

It’s easy to make a list of all the events and activities that take place; it’s harder to describe the almost tangible sense of faith and spiritual joy that permeates the main tent when nearly a thousand people are there worshipping the Lord in silence or in song, or listening to the Word of God opened up for them, or hearing a teenager describe the moment when they really began to believe and to see their life changing through the touch of Christ.

There are many wonderful initiatives for renewal and evangelisation taking place within the Catholic Church in our country – this is just one of them. They all point to a genuine renewal in the Church, a sense that something important is happening, that lives are really being changed. The catechetical blog “Transformed in Christ” catches something of this in these reflections on the festival:

One of the beautiful things about Youth 2000 is that it brings you right back again to the fresh experience of conversion. It brings you back to basics – being simple and humble, open and intimate with Christ. It is so beautiful to see this journey beginning in young souls. I don’t have dramatic experiences of God’s love anymore like I did when I was going to retreats at 17 and 18. God needed to get my attention back then, and now my faith has deepened and strengthened, so now it is more a daily experience of his love in my life.

But on Sunday night, we heard testimony after testimony from young people, all aged between 16 and 21, of the powerful experiences of God’s love they had received through Confession and the Eucharist. They often articulated them nervously, but an authentic, unmediated experience of joy, peace and freedom from having just been touched by Christ, radiated from each one.

I am sure that, this hidden work of the Holy Spirit and the open response of each individual, young soul is the most precious thing in the whole Church, the whole world!

When I was 17 I didn’t quite realise how precious it was, and perhaps those young people who with such courage and faith got up to give their testimony, don’t either. No one gets to see these miracles within souls. The humility of the Lord in working in such a hidden way is exquisite. But this is exactly what is beautiful about being a Catholic – the joy of being touched by Christ. If we ever lose sight of that, we are lost!

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Yesterday on Radio 4′s Something Understood Mark Tully looked into seminary life, past and present. John Cornwell reflects on his experience in ‘junior seminary’ many years ago, and I try to explain what things are like today at Allen Hall. You can listen here – the programme is available online until Sunday 17th June.

St Joseph’s College, Upholland, where John Cornwell went to ‘junior seminary’

Here is the blurb:

In Something Understood this week, Mark Tully is intrigued by life in a Roman Catholic seminary. How are young men trained for the priesthood?

At Allen Hall Seminary in the busy heart of London, Dean of Studies and Formation Advisor Father Stephen Wang explains the need for his students to train for their pastoral role within the Catholic community. Seminarians at Allen Hall spend much of their time in local parishes, schools and hospitals preparing for life as a Diocesan priest. And yet it’s also crucial that they have the quiet, contemplative space they need to develop spiritually. They must become men of God and men of communion.

Mark explores the history of the seminary system, with readings from Anthony Kenny and Denis Meadows, and hears music written by ancient monks in isolation. He speaks to writer and academic John Cornwell, whose own time at Upholland Seminary in the 1950s left a strong imprint on his spiritual life. The Junior Seminary system he experienced from the age of 12 no longer exists, but John believes that there are still serious flaws in the way the Catholic Church trains its priests. He argues that seminarians are too separated out from the world and from the people they are destined to serve once ordained.

Ultimately, becoming a priest requires huge dedication – what Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe described as a ‘falling in love’ with God. Perhaps what is also needed is a balance, between the prosaic and the spiritual, between being within the world and being apart from it.

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I’ve managed to get to the 40 Days for Life vigil in central London a couple of times since it started on Ash Wednesday. People gather outside the BPAS abortion clinic in Bedford Square, between Tottenham Court Road station and the British Museum. They pray. They witness peacefully to an alternative vision of life to that offered by the abortion culture. And they offer practical and loving support to women and men who perhaps think they have no alternative to seeking an abortion. It’s non-confrontational and non-judgemental, and it takes place across the street from the clinic so that people visiting there do not have to walk directly past a row of people they would rather avoid. One hour there were two or three people; another time there were about ten.

If you have time, why not try to visit and join the vigil, even if it is just for a few minutes. I know many people will feel uneasy about this – I did myself. There is a natural nervousness about doing anything in public as Christians, and a fear that this could become confrontational, and perhaps a genuine question about whether this kind of witness might be unhelpful and even counter-productive. I had all these questions and all these fears.

In the end, three thoughts persuaded me to go. First, the fact of simply praying must be doing some good. Second, I know not just from reading about it but also from friends involved that this witness has really helped a few people to re-think what they are doing and supported them in keeping their babies; it’s given some people not just a new hope but also the practical support to do what deep down they wanted to do. It’s helped to really change hearts and minds. And third, I am often tempted to go round in circles considering the pros and cons of an argument, and I thought that I should just go and experience for myself what it is all about.

I won’t pretend every moment is easy. Every now and then someone will walk past and make a comment (‘It’s none of your business’, ‘A woman’s right to choose’), and in these moments I feel very awkward, and question what we are doing. But there is a pervading sense of peace and prayerfulness, and a heartfelt charity towards all those involved in the clinic. People at the vigil are not there to judge, but to pray and to offer hope. And you feel the reality of this prayer and hope when you are there, even if it highlights the starkness of the choices many people are facing.

It’s also true that the vigil becomes a small and rare sign in the middle of London, to ordinary passers-by, that abortion is an everyday reality in our city, and that there is another view, another possibility. Abortion is for the most part an unquestioned part of the tapestry of British life. I’m not judging anyone here; I’m judging the culture that normalises abortion and makes it seem strange that people would stand in vigil to offer an alternative voice.

I came away with my faith strengthened, glad to have been able to offer a small witness to life. I also came away encouraged in a very concrete way by the knowledge that when we were there one of the women on the vigil had been able to have a long and much appreciated discussion with someone visiting the clinic. What happened in the end I don’t know, but at least something was offered.

Another strange and unexpected effect on me was the sense of standing with those who are suffering, with those who have no-one else to stand with them – even if it has no ‘practical’ consequence. These innocent human beings who are being aborted have been ‘forgotten’ by their parents, by the doctors, by the nurses; but at least a few people are trying to show that they are not forgotten. It reminded me of the women standing at the foot of the cross – offering their compassion to the crucified Christ, even if this didn’t seem to help him directly.

So the 40 Days for Life vigil seems to me to be about prayer, witness, support and solidarity; things that are undeniably good, even if there remain complex questions about what they mean and how best to express them.

The main website about the London event is here. You can see the international site here. The London Facebook page is here.

This ‘mission statement’ is from the blog.

40 days of peaceful prayer, fasting, and outreach to bring an end to abortion. We will help any person, whether mother, father, relative or friend, facing difficulties and considering an abortion. We also care about those that work at the abortion clinic. We pray for them and hope for their release from the culture of death, recognising that they too are wounded by abortion. We work for a change of hearts and minds, and a culture that defends life from conception.

And this is a summary of what the vigil is all about:

A peaceful and prayerful vigil opposite the abortion facility were countless unborn children are killed everyday. We stand in witness and prayer for the unborn children, their parents, and the people who work in the abortion industry.

Please join us daily anytime between 8am and 8pm, seven days a week.

We ask that each of our participants sign the statement of peace, abide by the law, and remain prayerful.

It is a really great help to the organisers if you could sign-up online and book which times you are able to join us at the vigil. This helps us to know which times are covered and which times need people present. Simply go to this link, sign-up, and choose you days and times.

Location:  North West Corner of Bedford Square, London WC1B 3HP (Directions)
Dates:   February 22, 2012 – April 1, 2012
Time:   STARTS: 8:00 AM     ENDS: 8:00 PM

Here is the ‘statement of peace’ you have to sign if you go as a registered participant:

1. I will only pursue peaceful solutions to the violence of abortion when volunteering with the 40 Days for Life campaign

2. I will show compassion and reflect Christ’s love to all abortion facility employees, volunteers, and customers

3. I understand that acting in a violent or harmful manner immediately and completely disassociates me from the 40 Days for Life campaign

4. I am in no way associated with the abortion facility/Planned Parenthood or its affiliates by way of employment, informant, volunteer, client, or otherwise

While standing in the city right of way in front of the abortion facility:

5. I will not obstruct the driveways or sidewalk while standing in the public right of way

6. I will not litter on the public right of way

7. I will closely attend to any children I bring to the prayer vigil

8. I will not threaten, physically contact, or verbally abuse the abortion facility/Planned Parenthood employees, volunteers, or customers

9. I will not vandalize private property

10. I will cooperate with local city authorities

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In my recent talk about the saints, I was developing an idea about how human maturity and sanctity involve learning to depend on others rather than learning to be more independent and self-sufficient. I linked this to a particular interpretation of Original Sin and the Fall. Here is the passage:

Let me look at the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. This is my speculation and not Catholic doctrine.

Adam and Eve leave Eden

One of the tragedies of the Fall, even before the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, was the fact that when Eve was tempted, instead of sharing this problem with Adam or with the Lord, she tried to argue with the serpent on her own. She didn’t turn to another and ask for help; she faced the challenge alone, trusted in herself too much, and in effect asserted her autonomy instead of allowing herself to receive the support of another. And I’m not making a point about woman’s need for man here. Adam, even though he was enticed by Eve and complicit with her choice, also acted alone. He didn’t stop to talk or reason with Eve or with the Lord. He just acted (Genesis Ch 3).

It’s the same with Cain and Abel in the following chapter of Genesis (Genesis Ch 4). This is a difficult passage to interpret, but at its heart it’s about two brothers faced with difficulties and temptations. When Cain was struggling with the Lord (because for some reason his offering was not acceptable to the Lord), instead of turning to his brother Abel, confiding in him, asking for his support and help and advice – he killed him. And when the Lord confronts him and says ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ Cain replies, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ He should have been his brother’s keeper, but he was not – and this is the heart of the tragedy.

And even more so (this is my interpretation), Cain should have allowed his brother Abel to be his keeper; he could have turned to his younger brother in this moment of crisis, in this struggle with the Lord, and asked for his help. But instead, he depended on his own resources and turned against his brother. Think of what Abel could have done for Cain if Cain he had opened his heart to him and confided in him?

The passage continues: “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” This is usually interpreted as meaning that the blood of Abel is crying out in vengeance against his brother, broadcasting the truth of his murder – and this is surely the primary meaning of the text.

But perhaps there is another hidden meaning here, which is that Abel’s blood is crying out in petition for his brother. Abel, in this story, is the just man, the innocent victim, like Christ. Just as Abel (we can suppose) wished he could have cried out to support his brother in that moment of temptation and crisis, now he cries out to the Lord, offering his own forgiveness, asking for forgiveness from the Lord for Cain, and praying for a sinner – his brother – just as Christ would pray for sinners from the Cross.

The point here is that Cain failed to be his brother’s keeper – he chose independence rather than dependence on another. Abel, in contrast, is the one who would have wanted to be his brother’s keeper, but wasn’t given the opportunity in this life. And now in death his blood cries out not just to indict his brother, but to intercede for him.

So part of our own healing and reconciliation as Christians is learning to become more dependent on others, learning to need others, when the constant temptation is to go it alone and isolate ourselves.

We see this healing and reconciliation taking place in many ways, one of which is in praying for each other, and asking others to pray for us.

A profound vision of redeemed Christian life is expressed whenever we pray to the saints. We turn to them not just because we want to get something from them, but also because we want to acknowledge our dependence on others, to show how much we need the help of the people God has made part of our lives.

Depending on the saints undermines the false idea that autonomy is the highest human goal. We are not made to be autonomous or self-sufficient; we are made to depend on each other – to be ‘keepers’ of our brothers and sisters, and to allow our brothers and sisters (at the appropriate times) to ‘keep’ us.

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When I was on retreat in September I took De Caussade’s Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence with me for spiritual reading, in the translation by Kitty Muggeridge entitled ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment‘. I read it years ago, but it’s good to come back to it again.

There are many other translations available – see these here on Amazon. Another one I have is a reprint of a Burns and Oates edition that has a fantastic selection of letters by De Caussade (Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence by Father J. P. de Caussade, translated by Father P. H. Ramiere SJ, edited by Father John Joyce SJ, with an introduction by Dom David Knowles. Tan Books, Charlotte, North Carolina, 1987).

This excerpt from a letter to a religious sister contains the kernel of his spiritual doctrine. It’s very simple, and very powerful.

I do not understand your anxieties, my dear Sister; why do you take pleasure in tormenting yourself, as you do, over the future, when your faith teaches you that the future is in the hands of a Father who is infinitely good, who loves you more than you love yourself and who understands your interests far better than you?

Have you forgotten that everything that happens is directed by the orders of divine Providence? But if we know this how can we hesitate to remain in a state of humble submission, in the most trifling as in the greatest events, to all that God wishes or permits? How blind we are when we desire anything other than what God wishes. He alone knows the dangers which threaten us in the future and the help which we shall need.

I am firmly convinced that we should all be lost if God gave us all our desires, and that is why, as St Augustine says, God, in His mercy and compassion for our blindness, does not always grant our prayers, and sometimes gives us the contrary of what we ask as being in reality better for us. In truth, I often think that nearly all of us are in this world in the position of poor sick people who in their frenzy or delirium ask for the very thing that would cause their death and who have to be refused out of pure charity in an enlightened pity.

My God, if this truth were once for all well-known, with what blind self-abandonment should we not submit ourselves to Thy divine Providence. What peace and tranquillity of heart we should enjoy in every circumstance, not only regarding external events, but also with reference to our interior states of soul.

It shows the importance of good theology for any worthwhile spirituality. If you know that God is infinitely loving, and infinitely powerful; that he is guiding all that happens to you, and everything throughout the whole world; and that he only wants what is best for you and for all –  it changes the way you pray.

You still pray and intercede, but it’s no longer out of fear (trying to change God’s mind because he doesn’t really know what he’s doing or doesn’t really care as much as you do). There is a fundamental trust within every prayer, and a reassurance that what is truly best really is unfolding – even if we can’t yet understand how.

It doesn’t lead to passivity or quietism, or to the misguided view that everything that happens is therefore good in itself (because it’s obvious that bad things and sometimes terrible things happen). It just means that there is an underlying trust in the Providence of God: that he only allows this because he desires to bring something greater out of it; that in his mercy he longs to redeem this situation – even in the face of apparent failure and meaninglessness; and that his deepest desire in everything is to lead us to what is for our true happiness and salvation.

Above all, it is a theology of hope.

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I’m just back from World Youth Day in Madrid. We took the non-budget option, thank goodness; so instead of staying on school floors and going for a communal ‘hose-down’ in the yard each morning (as some friends had to do), we had the relative luxury of beds and hot showers. You can’t imagine the Madrid heat if you haven’t experienced it. It was 39°C walking to the Vigil on Saturday afternoon (that’s over 100°F), with rucksacks and sleeping bags on our shoulders. No wonder the medical services were stretched.

There were 121 pilgrims in the group from Westminster Diocese. At the beginning we had four glorious days in Salamanca. I’m glad, this time, that we didn’t stay with Spanish host families, because we needed time to get to know each other. Many of the young people came as representatives of their home parishes, and so wouldn’t have known many others before. Salamanca gave us the chance just to be with each other before the madness of Madrid; with time for prayer, catechesis, discussion, and plenty of opportunities to explore the city, to soak up the pre-World Youth Day atmosphere, and learn the meaning of ‘tapas’ and ‘cerveza’.

For some, the highlight was doing the conga round the Plaza Mayor, perhaps the most beautiful square in Europe, with several hundred Koreans, Zambians and Australians, as the clock struck midnight. For others, it was a frenzied search, instigated by our irrepressible Spanish guide, for a mythical frog carved into the facade of the university which – if found – would guarantee you delivery of a faithful and loving spouse. Pretty high stakes.

After a day in Avila, visiting all the Teresian sights, we got to our accommodation in Madrid on Monday evening last week.

What is World Youth Day? Let me give you the basics, in case you haven’t heard much before; and then a couple of reflections. Hundreds of thousands of young Catholics converge on a different city every two or three years to celebrate their faith and meet the Pope. At the beginning of the week, there is a Mass of welcome, which is the first time that you get a sense of how many people are there. This time it took place in the centre of the city around the Cibeles area. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday there is a pattern of smaller-scale local catechesis in the morning, with the afternoons and evenings free to join in the ‘Festival of Youth’.

The catechesis takes place in language groups, often in a local church, but sometimes in a big stadium or conference hall. It’s usually a package of music, drama, testimonies, etc., organised by a particular youth group. The centrepiece is a chunky catechetical talk from a bishop, together with a Q&A session. It’s one of the rare occasions when young people get the chance to fire questions at a bishop – any questions at all – and to hear his spontaneous responses. And the morning session ends with Mass.

The ‘Festival of Youth’ is a vast jamboree of events that take place over the city during the week. Hundreds of concerts, exhibitions, prayer services, talks, panels, and much more. You can spend hours just browsing through the programme, and the challenge is to select just one or two things each day that sound especially appealing and try to make them. Or you can eat. Or you can sleep. Or just hang out. It’s hard to do everything. And in the intense heat of Madrid I did a lot less than I wished and usually opted for a long lunch and a siesta, with the odd venture out into the city.

Midweek the Pope arrives, which is an excuse for another huge central celebration. Sometime on the Friday there is traditionally a World Youth Day Stations of the Cross. And then everyone who is registered, together with hundreds of thousands of others, head to a vast out-of-town venue for the Prayer Vigil on Saturday evening and the final Mass on Sunday morning. In Madrid it took place at Cuatro Vientos, an airfield in the south of the city.

By the time we got there, about 5.30pm, the main area – which holds 800,000 people – was already full. It gives you an idea of the sheer scale of the event. In our overflow area, which was meant for the day visitors the following morning, there must have been two or three hundred thousand people by the time the Vigil started; so I can quite believe that with the addition of ordinary Spanish parishioners who came for Mass the next day there were over 1.5 million people and even nearer to 2 million, as the organisers claim. Just take a look at the aerial photos. I’ve since heard that some groups didn’t even get into the overflow area because that was full.

On the one hand, it was incredibly frustrating for us to be ‘outside’, given that we had reserved tickets for sector E1 in the airfield itself. Someone had done their calculations wrong, or opened the gates without any scrutiny of the passes. And there was a shocking lack of care for the hundreds of thousands of young people in the overflow area – above all the lack of drinking water and food (our designated food parcels were inside the complex and we were not allowed in to collect them), and the complete absence of information or hands on assistance. On the other hand, people were very patient and accepting, recognising without the need for any sermons that there is a grace in not having the best seat and bearing this kind of small deprivation humbly. We could see a screen easily; emergency supplies arrived at 3 in the morning; and the advantage of being on the outside was having space to stretch out and as many portaloos as you could wish for – unlike those penned inside.

Just as the Pope came out, about 8.30pm, an incredible storm came over the area; lightning, thunder, horizontal rain. It was pretty scary, and the organisers obviously didn’t know what to do, so they just stood there behind their white umbrellas, trying to keep the Pope dry; and we huddled together; and the less trusting ones amongst us – me included – wondered whether we should leave while the underground trains were still running.

Eventually the storm passed, and there was an incredibly profound twenty minutes of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s quite something to kneel in silence before the Lord with over a million people, and have a sense of how the silence and prayer are taking you deeper and deeper. People commented on this when we had Exposition in Hyde Park on the Saturday of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain; and I felt it even more in Cuatro Vientos – the power of silent Adoration, not just as a psychological manifestation of being united in such a huge group, but something spiritual, the power of Christ’s Presence.

We slept under the stars, when the singing and dancing finally died down in the early hours, and woke for Mass at 9.30. With some other Westminster priests, I managed to use my ‘sacerdote’ pass to get into the main airfield, and then to the seating just in front of the sanctuary reserved for concelebrating priests – thousands of us. One of the first things I did was stand on my seat just to take a look at the crowds behind me – a staggering sight, although it made me appreciate the numbers that must have been at the World Youth Day in Rome in the year 2000, which seemed to be even greater. I slept in my seat before things started, and then managed to stay awake for Mass. It was heartbreaking that Holy Communion couldn’t be distributed to most of the congregation, because most of the chapels scattered round the airfield that were meant to hold the consecrated hosts were literally blown away in the storm the night before.

The storm coming in during the Saturday evening Vigil

Somehow we got back to base after the Mass; showered and slept a bit; had a final evening together in the hostel; and came home on the Monday.

I’m just writing about external events, and it’s hard to convey the deeper currents that flow through the week-long celebration, and through the hearts and minds of each group and each individual. What is it about World Youth Day that touches the people involved so profoundly and so personally? I think that there is a real grace to the event, a grace of conversion, of being renewed in faith, of glimpsing something of God and of the Church and of oneself as if for the first time – I’ve seen this on every World Youth Day I’ve been on (and this is my fifth…). It’s far more than some kind of mass hysteria; far more than an over-blown youth festival or an outdated homage to John Paul II (as some might think).

First, I think it’s an experience of the Church. The ordinary, simple reality of the Church, that is simply not seen very often. People being together, knowing each other, sharing each other’s lives. The beauty of the faith explained, in ways that speak to the heart and connect with the ordinary realities of life. The sacraments celebrated worthily, joyfully, with some solid catechesis behind them. The diversity of what it means to he Catholic, and the unity of the Catholic faith – at the same time. And of course meeting the Pope, praying with him and with so many others in such a visible expression of Christian communion. I don’t think there is some great secret to Catholic youth work – it’s just about living the Catholic faith, and creating a context in which it can be lived, in all its fullness.

Second, it’s obviously an experience of pilgrimage, in a particular form. So all the well-known graces of this experience are allowed to flourish – getting away from things, making sacrifices, travelling to a holy destination, carrying a particular intention, meeting new people, putting ordinary life in perspective, having extra time to pray and reflect, etc. This is true for Lourdes and Walsingham and a thousand other pilgrimages.

Third, I think World Youth Day allows young people to experience not just the Church as Church (faith, sacraments, Pope, community, etc.), but the way one’s whole life can be transformed by a living faith. Maybe because people are trying harder, maybe because they are liberated from some of the struggles that plague them back home, maybe because it’s easier when you are constantly being reminded about the meaning of faith and noticing it in the lives of those around you – but you really see what it means to love Christ and to share his love with others, and you see how much better the world is because of that. You see how the Catholic faith makes sense of life; how it makes life more alive.

You see how different life is when it is founded on prayer, generosity, service, sacrifice, forgiveness, joy, humility, and all the other virtues that can so easily be forgotten or even dismissed. You see how different life is when people are really living their Catholic faith and founding it on the love of Christ, even with all their human weaknesses; and when a community is trying to live it, not just for their own integrity, but for the sake of others too. It really works; it shines and sometimes dazzles. It’s just not put to the test very often. When you see it, on these strange occasions like a World Youth Day pilgrimage, you can’t but be affected. And no wonder the young people coming home are coming back a little bit different.

You can see some of our Westminster photos on Flickr here, and the official Spanish WYD photos here.

Apologies for the long post – it’s been quite an intense few days!

I’m off to Walsingham on Thursday for another huge youth event, this time the annual Youth 2000 summer festival. It’s like a mini-World Youth Day, only in Norfolk, England! So if you are between 16 and 35, and didn’t get the chance to go to Madrid, why not think about coming along. Or even if you did. It’s from Thursday 25 August to Monday 29. The details are here.

And to finish. One of the few disappointments from Madrid was this year’s theme song. So here is the one from Sydney three years ago, one of my favourite ‘worship songs’ of all time (if it comes under that category):

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It was announced some months ago that Pope Benedict will go to Assisi in October to commemorate Pope John Paul II’s interreligious meeting there in 1986.

Assisi

The stated aim is to witness to peace, and not – as some people have feared – to pray together or to deny the uniqueness of Christ. As Cindy Wooden wrote in January:

He did not actually say anything about praying with members of other religions. Announcing the October gathering, he said he would go to Assisi on pilgrimage and would like representatives of other Christian confessions and other world religions to join him there to commemorate Pope John Paul’s “historic gesture” and to “solemnly renew the commitment of believers of every religion to live their own religious faith as a service in the cause of peace.”

While Pope Benedict may be more open to interreligious dialogue than some of the most conservative Christians would like, he continues to insist that dialogue must be honest about the differences existing between religions and that joint activities should acknowledge those differences.

John Allen, more recently, looks as the significance of the coming meeting.

Movers and shakers in Rome are well aware that John Paul II’s 1986 interreligious summit was among the iconic moments of his papacy. It helped make the pope a global point of reference, it enhanced the effectiveness of Vatican diplomacy, and it boosted the moral authority of the church.

Today, the Vatican could use another win like that in the court of public opinion. In the West, it faces a hostile political and legal environment, with Ireland even threatening to breach the sanctity of the confessional. In other parts of the world, it needs the good will of governments and leaders of other faiths to protect Christians under fire. Tuesday’s car bomb attack against a Syro-Catholic church in Kirkuk, Iraq, offers tragic proof of the point.

A high-profile public event such as Assisi, which showcases the papacy’s unique capacity to bring religions together, could be a real boon — provided, of course, it doesn’t turn in to another PR debacle.

Assisi is also important to Benedict XVI. Although he’s made great strides in inter-faith relations, especially with Islam, in some quarters he’s still dogged by the image of a cultural warrior associated with a September 2006 speech in Regensburg, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor critical of Muhammad.

Given all that, one can expect Vatican officials to act with alacrity to put out any potential fires related to the Assisi summit.

Naturally, the fact that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was among those seen as ambivalent about Assisi back in ’86 also lends subtext to the October edition. In light of that history, Vatican officials will bend over backwards to insist that this is not, as Koch put it, a “syncretistic act.”

I look forward to seeing what actually happens, as well as listening to what is said, since the visual symbolism of these meetings can often say far more than the words that are spoken.

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Pope John Paul II has been a huge inspiration for me in my faith and my vocation as a priest. I was at seminary at the English College in Rome, from 1992 to 1997, and the Sunday timetable was designed so that we could get to St Peter’s for the Pope’s Angelus address between Mass and lunch.

It was wonderful to wander down to St Peter’s Square and join the crowds, especially if you had visitors staying with you; not just to see him – as a kind of tourist event or cultural icon – but to listen to him and above all to pray with him. The sense of ‘being in communion’ with the worldwide Church through your prayerful communion with St Peter’s successor was very strong.

Two personal memories stand out. Each year we had a different pastoral placement in Rome – some pastoral project that we got involved in once a week. One of these, for me, was working in a youth centre near St Peter’s. One week the team was invited to the Pope’s early morning Mass in his private chapel. We arrived all excited, like fans wanting to gawp at a celebrity, but we were suddenly caught up in an atmosphere of profound stillness and contemplation. He was there praying before the tabernacle. That’s all. But it felt as if he was carrying the needs of the whole Church in his heart, and as if the mystery and holiness of God were a living reality for him.

I think he was a contemplative, who lived continually in the presence of God. I was so keen not to reduce this prayerful encounter to an anecdote that I passed by the chance to buy the photo of our brief meeting afterwards – which I regret deeply now!

The other memory is the World Youth Day that took place in Rome in 2000. He was elderly and already quite frail, but when he came out to meet the young people – nearly two million of them – you could see how energised and open he was to them.

He was like a father, who somehow communicated a genuine love for everyone there, an almost personal concern, and a longing for them to know the beauty of Christ and the beauty of a life that is given to Christ. It seemed to touch everyone personally in a profound way.

He was a great teacher, a great leader; but it’s these personal memories of his goodness and holiness that seem to stand out for people – even those who never met him.

I don’t have the photo from that ‘private Mass’, just the memory; but I’ve got his Apostolic Blessing on the wall beside my desk, from the day of my ordination in 1998 – which makes up for it!

If you want some further reading about the beatification, here are some links to John Allen’s recent posts and articles:

NCR postings

Other media outlets

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There is some controversy about Pope John Paul’s beatification this coming weekend. Is it too quick? Can we really understand the significance of someone’s pontificate when we are still so close to it? Surely he took some false steps and made some decisions that with hindsight seem to have been unwise?

I think it’s important to remember that when you beatify a person you are not beatifying every decision they ever made. The Church makes a judgment about their holiness, about their love for God and for their neighbour, and knows enough to say that their deepest intentions were good and their underlying motivations were pure – even if, in their human frailty and weakness, they made mistakes. You can honour a saint without having to pretend that you agree with every opinion they held or every choice they made.

This thoughtful piece by John Thavis explains how someone is beatified for their holiness – for the way their faith, hope and charity have shone out in the world and touched the lives of other.

As church officials keep emphasizing, Pope John Paul II is being beatified not for his performance as pope, but for how he lived the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. When the Vatican’s sainthood experts interviewed witnesses about the Polish pontiff, the focus of their investigation was on holiness, not achievement.

What emerged was a spiritual portrait of Pope John Paul, one that reflected lifelong practices of prayer and devotion, a strong sense of his priestly vocation and a reliance on faith to guide his most important decisions. More than leadership or managerial skills, these spiritual qualities were the key to his accomplishments–both before and after his election as pope in 1978.

From an early age, Karol Wojtyla faced hardships that tested his trust in God. His mother died when he was 9, and three years later he lost his only brother to scarlet fever. His father died when he was 20, and friends said Wojtyla knelt for 12 hours in prayer and sorrow at his bedside.

His calling to the priesthood was not something that happened overnight. It took shape during the dramatic years of World War II, after a wide variety of other experiences: Among other things, he had acted with a theater group, split stone at a quarry, written poetry and supported a network that smuggled Jews to safety.

Wojtyla’s friends of that era always remembered his contemplative side and his habit of intense prayer. A daily Mass-goer, he cultivated a special devotion to Mary. In 1938, he began working toward a philosophy degree at the University of Krakow. A year later, the Nazi blitzkrieg of Poland left the country in ruins.

During the German occupation, Wojtyla began attending weekly meetings called the “living rosary” led by Jan Tyranowski, a Catholic layman who soon became his spiritual mentor. Tyranowski introduced him to the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross, who would greatly influence the future pope. Wojtyla called Tyranowski an “apostle” and later wrote of him: “He showed us God much more immediately than any sermons or books; he proved to us that God could not only be studied, but also lived.”

At a spiritual crossroads in 1942, Wojtyla entered Krakow’s clandestine theological seminary. In the pope’s 1996 book, “Gift and Mystery,” he remembered his joy at being called to the priesthood, but his sadness at being cut off from acquaintances and other interests. He said he always felt a debt to friends who suffered “on the great altar of history” during World War II, while he pursued his underground seminary studies.  As a seminarian, he continued to be attracted to monastic contemplation. Twice during these years he petitioned to join the Discalced Carmelites but was said to have been turned away with the advice: “You are destined for greater things.”

He was ordained four years later, as Poland’s new communist regime was enacting restrictions on the Catholic Church. After two years of study in Rome, he returned to Poland in 1948 and worked as a young pastor. From the beginning, he focused much of his attention on young people, especially university students — the beginning of a lifelong pastoral interest. Students would join him on hiking and camping trips, which always included prayer, outdoor Masses and discussions about the faith.

Father Wojtyla earned a doctorate in moral theology and began teaching at Lublin University, at the same time publishing articles and books on ethics and other subjects. In 1958, at age 38, he was named an auxiliary bishop of Poland, becoming the youngest bishop in Poland’s history. He became archbishop of Krakow in 1964, and played a key role in the Second Vatican Council, helping to draft texts on religious liberty and the church in the modern world.

He was elected Pope in 1978, and it didn’t stop him deepening his spiritual life.

Pope John Paul’s private prayer life was intense, and visitors who attended his morning Mass described him as immersed in an almost mystical form of meditation. He prayed the liturgy of the hours, he withdrew for hours of silent contemplation and eucharistic adoration, and he said the rosary often — eventually adding five new luminous mysteries to this traditional form of prayer…

Pope John Paul canonized 482 people, more than all his predecessors combined. Although the Vatican was sometimes humorously referred to as a “saint factory” under Pope John Paul, the pope was making a very serious effort to underline what he called the “universal call to holiness” — the idea that all Christians, in all walks of life, are called to sanctity. “There can never be enough saints,” he once remarked.

He was convinced that God sometimes speaks to the world through simple and uneducated people. St. Faustina was one, and he also canonized St. Padre Pio, the Italian mystic, and St. Juan Diego, the Mexican peasant who had visions of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The world knows Pope John Paul largely because of his travels to 129 countries. For him, they were spiritual journeys. As he told his top advisers in 1980: “These are trips of faith and of prayer, and they always have at their heart the meditation and proclamation of the word of God, the celebration of the Eucharist and the invocation of Mary.”

Pope John Paul never forgot that he was, above all, a priest. In his later years, he said repeatedly that what kept him going was not the power of the papacy but the spiritual strength that flowed from his priestly vocation. He told some 300,000 young people in 1997: “With the passing of time, the most important and beautiful thing for me is that I have been a priest for more than 50 years, because every day I can celebrate Holy Mass!”

In his final years, the suffering brought on by Parkinson’s disease, arthritis and other afflictions became part of the pope’s spiritual pilgrimage, demonstrating in an unusually public way his willingness to embrace the cross. With his beatification, the church is proposing not a model pope but a model Christian, one who witnessed inner holiness in the real world, and who, through words and example, challenged people to believe, to hope and to love.

This is the man who is being beatified this weekend.

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One of my Lenten books this year is The Path of Prayer by St Theophan the Recluse. The language and ideas are very accessible, because it started life as four sermons to ordinary people.

One of the key themes is that the great heights of prayer, the great depths of mystical intimacy with God, can be found simply by saying our ordinary prayers with devotion and attention. The everyday prayers that we say (the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Psalms, etc) should be the ordinary means of discovering that union with God that we are searching for. I like this because it undermines the idea that there is some kind of split between ordinary vocal prayer, popular devotion, and contemplative prayer. They should all be, at heart, our standing in the presence of God, with hearts and minds recollected and open to him.

Here is just one passage from the first sermon. He is explaining how we should pray our ordinary daily prayers.

Simply enter into every word, then bring the meaning of each word down into your heart. That is, understand what you say, and then become aware of what you have understood. No further rules are necessary. These two, understanding and feeling – if they are properly carried out – ornament every offering of prayer with the highest quality, and this makes it fruitful and effective. For example, when you recite ‘and cleanse us from all impurities’, experience with feeling your impurity, desire to become pure, and pray to God in hope for it.

A ‘feeling’, in this Orthodox spiritual tradition, is not a fleeting emotion or mood (which we can’t control and which wouldn’t have much significance for our prayer) – it is one’s willingness to enter into the personal meaning of the truth that is being expressed in the words, to embrace this meaning with the whole heart and mind, instead of just keeping it at a distance as an abstract truth or a string of sounds at the very edge of consciousness.

St Theophan was one of the great Russian ‘starets’ of the nineteenth century, a theologian and bishop who became a monk and spent the last twenty years of his life in solitude as a hermit within his community. He is one of the masters of the spiritual life.

It seems that the book is out of print, but there is a big selection of passages from St Theophan about prayer here at the Orthodox Christian Information Society.

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How do you make sense of a radical commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience in the contemporary world? Is it possible for someone to say: “For love of Jesus Christ, and in answer to his call, I desire to give myself to him, freely and forever, and to devote my whole life to the extension of his Kingdom”?

It was good to be with Sister Cathy Mary of the Holy Spirit on Saturday, as she said these very words and made her final vows in the Congregation of the Religious of the Assumption in their beautifully restored chapel in Kensington. You can see their website here.

I’ve already posted about the renewal of religious life in this country, and one of the many encouraging signs on Saturday was the number of young religious sisters from other congregations who were there to support Sr Cathy.

Fr Matt Blake OCD gave a beautiful homily about the meaning of a lifelong commitment in religious vows. Three thoughts really struck me. First, reflecting on the journey of faith that brings someone to this point, and why the extended period of discernment and initiation is so important, he said:

It takes time for God’s deepest desire for you to become your own deepest desire for yourself.

That’s why, quite often, when we make a heartfelt prayer to God that he would reveal our true vocation, the answer doesn’t always come straight away. It’s not just that we aren’t ready to hear; sometimes we aren’t ready to want what God wants, or to want what he wants us to want.

Second, he spoke about a scene from the film Of Gods and Men, which I haven’t seen yet. One of the monks is agonising about whether he should stay in the Algerian monastery and risk giving his life as a martyr. In response his abbot says something like, ‘But you have already given your life without reservation to God in your monastic vows’. And the monk is overcome with a sense of clarity and peace about his desire to remain where he is – whatever the cost.

Fr Matt drew out from this a profound thought about the nature of commitment: that instead of acting as a restraint, which is what we often fear, it actually gives you a greater freedom. When you make an unconditional ‘yes’ (e.g., to Christ, or to a specific vocation, or to a husband or wife), it means you have already accepted all the future commitments that come along implicitly with this original commitment. Some, of course, will be difficult; some will be unexpected; some will even seem to stretch the meaning of that ‘yes’ in ways that seemed unimaginable at the beginning. But they will all be part of the same decision to give oneself completely.

This gives an enormous freedom and security. There will be incredibly difficult choices to make, but the fundamental one has already been made. And that takes away the existential anguish of constantly having to reconsider whether this purpose, this deepest commitment, is actually worthwhile or not.

The final thought was about the Gospel reading, which was the story of the Annunciation – when the Angel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary and announces that she will give birth to the Son of God. Fr Matt said “I’ve always thought that the most important line in the whole passage is…” – and we all started guessing whether it would be one of Gabriel’s profound words to Mary or Mary’s profound words to Gabriel. But he went on “…the most important line in the whole passage is the last one: And the angel left her.

That threw me. I must have heard this passage a hundred times, but not once have I thought about that last line. It doesn’t mean, said Fr Matt, that God ever abandons anyone, or that the gift of his Holy Spirit is ever taken away from those who are trying to be faithful to Christ in their vocation. But the glory that surrounds the event, even the clarity and inspiration that made the commitment possible – these can fade and sometimes disappear. What endures is the commitment itself. We don’t know if the Virgin Mary ever saw the angel again in her lifetime, but she treasured his memory and clung to the truth that he had revealed.

I don’t think Fr Matt was being pessimistic about Sr Cathy’s future by drawing attention to this line. He was just speaking from his experience of religious life, and in his own way he was offering encouragement: You’ve had a wonderful day professing your final vows, now you can get on with the business of living them.

PS: These thoughts came from silvana rscj in the comments:

Following on from your reflections on the angel… in PierPaolo Pasolini’s film the Gospel According to St Matthew, Mary does meet the angel again, 33 years later at the tomb of her son, now risen from the dead. There is a lovely look of recognition on her face, and, finally, understanding of everything the angel had told her all those years ago.

Maybe that’s how it will be for us too: many years and events later, we will eventually come to understand the promises God has made to us, and, like Mary, enter into a deeper, closer relationship with Jesus…

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Four men from Allen Hall were ordained to the diaconate at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday morning. It was a beautiful end to the seminary year. Archbishop Vincent said that a deacon is consecrated to a life of service to others, and that this spirit of service is like a seal that is imprinted on his very being. You can read a full report about the service here, which includes a few paragraphs from each of the new deacons about their own story and what helped them in their vocation.

St Vincent the Deacon

If you have never been to an ordination, here are the questions that the bishop puts to the candidates before they prostrate themselves for the litany of saints. It’s very powerful to hear a group of young men make these lifelong commitments in front of so many people. The answer to each question, by the way, is ‘I am’!

Are you willing to be ordained for the Church’s ministry by the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit?

Are you resolved to discharge the office of deacon with humility and love in order to assist the bishop and the priests and to serve the people of Christ?

Are you resolved to hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, as the Apostle urges, and to proclaim this faith in word and action as it is taught by the Gospel and the Church’s tradition?

Are you resolved to maintain and deepen the spirit of prayer appropriate to your way of life and, in keeping with what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the liturgy of the Hours for the Church and for the whole world?

Are you resolved to shape your way of life always according to the example of Christ, whose body and blood you will give to the people?

And after the prayer of consecration and the putting on of the stole and dalmatic (the deacon’s vestments), the bishop places the Book of the Gospels in the hand of the new deacon and says:

Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.

A reminder that you do not have to be a saint in order to preach the Gospel, just a believer, but that you do need to have a desire to live by your own preaching.

(Lawrence OP gives the following commentary on the image above: “According to legend, after being martyted, ravens protected St Vincent’s body from being devoured by wild animals, until his followers could recover the body. This painting in Burgos Cathedral depicts that miraculous event.”)

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Not many people would know that there is an enclosed monastery of contemplative nuns in a fashionable district of west London. Michael Whyte has just finished a documentary film about life in Notting Hill Carmel and, remarkably, it is getting a national cinematic release in April. You can visit the monastery site here; and the site of the film here (with some beautiful images, and an online trailer).

After ten years of correspondence, Michael Whyte was given unprecedented access to the monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, in London’s Notting Hill. The monastery, which was founded in 1878, is home to the Discalced Order of Carmelite Nuns. The nuns lead a cloistered life dedicated to prayer and contemplation, rarely leaving the monastery except to visit a doctor or dentist. Silence is maintained throughout the day with the exception of two periods of recreation.

No Greater Love gives a unique insight into this closed world where the modern world’s materialism is rejected; they have no television, radio or newspapers. The film interweaves a year in the life of the monastery with the daily rhythms of Divine Office and work. Centred in Holy Week, it follows a year in which a novice is professed and one of the senior nuns dies. Though mainly an observational film there are several interviews, which offer insights into their life, faith, moments of doubt and their belief in the power of prayer in the heart of the community.

I was lucky enough to go to a screening this week. I’ve known the community for a few years because they have links with the seminary where I work. A key part of the Carmelite vocation is to pray for priests, and the sisters at Notting Hill pray each day for the priests and seminarians of Westminster Diocese. We visit them once a year in small groups, and chat in the ‘parlour’. So it was a real eye-opener to see what goes on ‘behind-the-scenes’ after all this time.

St Therese in  Notting Hill Carmel by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

Some of the sisters (at the visit of the relics in October)

I was struck, perhaps inevitably, by the silence; but also by the noises that emerge from this silence. One of the sisters explained that they don’t feel disconnected from the city, because they are there to pray for the city, and to live at its heart. And you could see and hear these very connections in the background: the sound of a siren, of a train pulling out of Paddington Station; the sight of a police helicopter flying over, seen above the arms of a wooden crucifix in the garden.

Some of the sisters talked about their vocations, and about the struggles of prayer. It was very real. Moments of joy; moments of darkness and boredom — sometimes lasting for years. You had a sense, throughout the film, that they knew who they were and what they were doing. Simple things: cooking, cleaning, gardening, caring for the sick, swapping news and stories (in the time of recreation each evening), kneeling in the chapel. Simple things that add up to a huge commitment of life.

One sister took evident delight in taking a chainsaw to an overgrown tree; and the director seemed to take an equal delight in cutting abruptly to this scene from the silence of the Chapel.

The final shot was breathtaking. Only at the very end, after following the sisters within the confines of the monastery walls for what amounted to a year, did the director use an aerial shot and pan back from the monastery to the surrounding streets and housing estates — and to the whole of west London. You realised that this monastery, so hidden away and unacknowledged, is truly part of the beating heart of London.

I’ll post again when I hear details about when and where the film is showing.

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I mentioned a few weeks ago that a series of talks about ‘the Fundamentals of Faith’ was coming up. These have now happened, and thanks to the technology team at the Diocese of Westminster you can watch or read them all online. The main link is here.

Just to remind you of the topics: There are talks on Authority and Conscience; Prayer; the Bible; Finding True Happiness; God, Creation and Ecology; and Catholic Social Teaching.

The link to my own talk about ‘Happiness and the moral life’ is below. [That's Fr Dominic Robinson at the beginning; I start the talk at 2:40].

Faith Matters, Lecture 4 Autumn 2009 from Catholic Westminster.

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The Benediction of Saint Patrick by starbeard.Sunday was the feast of All Saints. I gave a talk about the meaning of devotion to the saints at Farm Street, the Jesuit church in central London. You can listen to it [click OPEN] or download it [click SAVE] from here; and read the handout here.

I spoke about the obvious things: how we learn from their example; how we enjoy their friendship; how we are helped by their prayers. But I added another point: that our dependence on the prayers of the saints teaches us a deeper truth about our identity as human beings [Go to 45:23 in the download].

In the story of the Garden of Eden, there are two tragedies that unfold. One is the Fall, the Original Sin when Eve and then Adam took the forbidden fruit and ate from it. But this depends on the tragedy that comes before: that when Eve is tempted, when she is faced with this moment of monumental crisis, she faces it alone, she doesn’t ask for help or advice or support from God or from her husband. And I don’t mean this in a sexist way as if to say that the woman should have sought help from the man; I mean it in a way that would apply to Adam as much as to Eve. Neither of them was meant to face the serpent alone; and how different it could have been if they had turned to each other and to God. When she looked at the fruit, with the serpent whispering in her ear, and took that decision on her own, it was – perhaps – already too late.

The same is true with Cain and Abel. It’s a difficult passage to interpret, but it reflects the scene between Adam and Eve. Cain is tempted, and struggles with the Lord. But instead of seeking God’s help, or seeking the help of his brother Abel – he kills him. When the Lord asks him “Where is your brother Abel?” and Cain replies “Am I my brother’s keeper?!” – the answer is, “Yes, you should have been”. But even more importantly, he should have allowed Abel to be his keeper when he was facing his own demons; Cain should have turned to his brother, leant on him, and shared his concerns with him.

So part of our salvation, part of our healing, is the restoration of human relationships. The Fall involved a pride, a false notion of independence, a distorted idea of autonomy, of self-reliance. And in the healing process that Christ brings we learn – in certain respects – to become more dependent on others; we learn that we are not alone; we learn that we are not meant to cope on our own. It’s OK to need others, it’s OK to ask for their help.

This is one reason why devotion to the saints is so important. In praying for others, and in asking others to pray for us, we learn to depend on their help – and our proper identity as children of God and as brothers and sisters is restored.

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Do the ideas of ‘solitude’ and ‘silence’ have any meaning for those of us who live in the madness of the city, who are haunted by the endless demands of modern life? 

genèse, errance et solitude de la consommation by TisseurDeToile -[*].

I’m just back from a talk about Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the foundress of Madonna House, and the woman who introduced the concept of ‘poustinia’ to the West. Here is just one paragraph from a wonderful website about her life and works:

In response to the deepening dilemmas of the Western world, Catherine offered the spirituality of her Russian past. She introduced the concept of poustinia, which was totally unknown in the West in the 1960’s, but has since become recognized in much of the world. Poustinia is the Russian word for “desert,” which in its spiritual context is a place where a person meets God through solitude, prayer and fasting. Catherine’s vision and practical way of living the Gospel in ordinary life became recognized as a remedy to the depersonalizing effects of modern technology. In response to the rampant individualism of our century, she called Madonna House to sobornost, a Russian word meaning deep unity of heart and mind in the Holy Trinity—a unity beyond purely human capacity.

And here are her own words from the seminal book Poustinia, Chapter XV: “The Poustinia of the Heart”:

Well, we have arrived at the end of this book on the poustinia. I myself have always been attracted to the silence and solitude of God. When it became obvious that my vocation was not to be physical silence and solitude, when I was thrown into the noisiest marketplaces in the world, God showed me how to live out the poustinia ideal. The heart of it is that the poustinia is not a place at all—and yet it is. It is a state, a vocation, belonging to all Christians by baptism. It is the vocation to be a contemplative.

The essence of the poustinia is that it is a place within oneself, a result of baptism, where each of us contemplates the Trinity. Within my heart, within me, I am constantly in the presence of God. The poustinia is this inner solitude, this inner immersion in the silence of God.

“This is the poustinia I have been trying to talk about. This is the poustinia I so passionately want to give to everyone. I know that in the poustinia lies the answer that the world is seeking today. If we lived in the poustinia of our hearts then love would enter the world through us. We could speak God’s word to the world. It is the poustinia of the heart that I believe is the answer for the modern world.

Chinese Hut by Falconne007.

And finally, the distillation of the Gospel that Catherine put together in her ‘Little Mandate’, which forms the heart of the spirituality of Madonna House today:

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.

Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.

Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.

Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.

Love… love… love, never counting the cost.

Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.

Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.

Pray always. I will be your rest.

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Silenсe by bu5h.

There is a beautiful article here by Susan Hill about the human need for silence. It’s not just another complaint about the busyness of life and the ubiquity of noise – although she is obviously disturbed by the fact that musak has crept into public libraries, doctors’ waiting rooms, and art galleries. It’s more about how children need to be educated, gently, into appreciating silence, and how we are failing to provide that education. Here are a few lines:

But we have also betrayed them by confiscating their silence and failing to reveal the richness that may be found within the context of “a great quiet”… When we arrive in a place of profound quiet, we “come to” and find something of ourselves that we did not realise we had lost, an attentiveness, a renewed awareness of our own innermost thoughts and sensations, as well as a great calm… Silence is a rich and fertile soil in which many things grow and flourish, not least an awareness of everything outside oneself and apart from oneself, as well, paradoxically, as everything within… Our children are too rarely given that opportunity or taught that the contrast between noise and quietness, like the parallel one between being in company and being alone, is vital to the growth and maturity of the individual.

As a priest working in a seminary I tend to take for granted the rhythm of study and prayer and silence that is built into each day; above all the period of 45 minutes between morning prayer and breakfast that is set aside for silent prayer and meditation. Even then, with the chapel facing the main road and a major hospital round the corner, it’s hard to escape the racket of buses, sirens and helicopters.

Penderecki by selva.

It was only on retreat this spring that I realised how much I missed real silence – the kind that meets you like a physical presence, and holds you, and takes you beyond; that creates a kind of natural humility, an anticipation, even a sense of awe.

A friend of mine with young children used to put them down to nap each afternoon. As they got older, without reflecting on it very much, she kept the nap time – even when they weren’t napping. It was a time of enforced silence after lunch, from about 2 to 4, when they could do anything they wanted (within reason…) as long as they did not disturb the silence. It was a real education. They’d play games, make things, explore in the garden, mope around, read as they got older. Learning to live with themselves. Then, around 4pm, the noise began…

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