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Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

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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I was at a beautiful wedding recently, and I had a small moment of revelation about the meaning of wearing a wedding ring. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my understanding was turned completely upside down.

I’ve always thought that wearing a wedding ring was a sign of the commitment you are making to your spouse and to your marriage. Not to pretend that it all depends on you – because it’s about a relationship and a vocation, and about God’s blessing on that relationship. But to see the wearing of the ring as a constant sign of your own re-dedication and re-commitment to this relationship, and to make this continuing acknowledgement of your marital commitment public by wearing a ring. The ring becomes, as it were, a public profession of your marriage and what it continues to mean to you. This is why in those films (cf. Bruce Willis in the first scene of Unbreakable), when a husband meets a stranger on a train and starts plotting how he might hook up with her, he quietly slips his wedding ring off and puts it in his pocket.

But I heard the words of the wedding rite as if for the first time, and this is absolutely not what the wearing of the ring signifies. Here they are:

Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So the ring that is given is a sign of the love and fidelity of the one who gives it. The ring that you wear, that was placed on your finger by your spouse on your wedding day, does not represent your commitment to your marriage, your love for your spouse, your faithfulness to this relationship and to the vocation God has called you into, etc. It represents the commitment, love and faithfulness of your spouse to you.

The ring is not there, first of all, as a sign of your continuing commitment to this person (although of course it can come to mean that as well). It’s an ongoing reminder of the promise that the other person has made to you. It’s a sign of the covenant that your spouse has made with you, and that God has sealed, and that you have freely embraced and entered into. The same covenant that you have also made with your spouse.

I know this is obvious – I’m ashamed to say that I’d just never thought of it before. It changes things. I’m sure I’ve given lots of wedding sermons about looking down at the ring on your finger and choosing to live your marriage and love your spouse. It’s all true, in one sense. But the symbolism of the ring is not, ultimately, about your own efforts or decisions or commitments, it’s a reminder of the promise that another has made to you, and of the promise that God has made to you both. I know that life, and marriage, are not always tidy or easy, but I think there is a truth worth pondering here.

Do contradict me, and write in the comments what your wedding ring has meant to you over the years!

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I was at Compton Verney recently to see a fascinating exhibition entitled Flight and the Artistic Imagination. It brought together all sorts of images and objects, many of them religious, about the almost universal human desire to fly. Part of the interest was seeing how different strands of mythology and culture could be woven together so unexpectedly.

The central theme of the first room, of course, was Icarus.

Son of Daedalus who dared to fly too near the sun on wings of feathers and wax. Daedalus had been imprisoned by King Minos of Crete within the walls of his own invention, the Labyrinth. But the great craftsman’s genius would not suffer captivity. He made two pairs of wings by adhering feathers to a wooden frame with wax. Giving one pair to his son, he cautioned him that flying too near the sun would cause the wax to melt. But Icarus became ecstatic with the ability to fly and forgot his father’s warning. The feathers came loose and Icarus plunged to his death in the sea.

But taking up a whole wall in the same room was Zurbaran’s Levitation of St Francis (I can’t find a copyright free image unfortunately), with St Francis in ecstasy, gazing up to heaven, flying through the sky, with nothing to frame him except the clouds.

At the same time as the exhibition explored the hugely important science of ballooning, and various artistic and cartographic responses to the first experiences of aircraft flight, it also looked at the biblical subject of Jacob’s ladder from Genesis 28, which reached to heaven and on which the angels of God ascended and descended.

So the various themes were eclectic, but there was a thought-provoking and unforced unity about the whole exhibition: our desire to fly, to escape from our earthly confines, to gain a more expansive vision, to pierce not just the clouds but the heavens. It was a beautiful way of reflecting on the search for transcendence.

Really it should have ended, at the scientific level, with the Hubble telescope, which has allowed us to see through the heavens of our own galaxy and to look beyond into the vastness of the universe – without satisfying the hunger to see still further beyond.

And at the spiritual level the best crowning image would have been not St Francis levitating, but the Ascension of Jesus or the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when human nature was lifted up and taken through the veil into heaven itself. There are so many great artistic representations of feet seen from below – I’m thinking for example of the Slipper Chapel in Walsingham.

I’ve always enjoyed the Icarus story. My main project for O-level art at school (yes, I am old enough to remember O-levels) was developing a screen print of an Icarus figure leaping from the end of a pier and falling into the sea below. Designing the engineering of the pier structure gave me great delight – I love piers. And the mixture of hope and tragedy appealed to me. Maybe tragedy isn’t the right word; I think my image managed to convey the idea that it was better for Icarus to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all. I took him as a heroic rather than a foolish figure; not just disregarding his father’s warnings, but truly believing that the wax might hold – and that it would be worth it.

It’s an argument for prayer for those who have no faith: it’s better to try, knowing that in theory it might be possible, even if you don’t yet have the personal experience or the objective evidence to prove it for yourself. The tragedy would be not taking the opportunity, not taking the risk. You wouldn’t crash to the ground, like Icarus; you’d just find yourself sitting comfortably in the same seat – maybe more enlightened, maybe more curious, maybe still puzzled, or perhaps completely anticlimaxed. But what is there to lose? I know, it’s not that simple…

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I’ve been involved in a couple of retreats recently, and one of the themes has been the importance of having a contemplative heart even in the midst of activity, of trying to keep an inner stillness even when you are racing around. Not always easy!

Usain Bolt relaxing before a race

It was fascinating to read this Olympic piece by Andy Bull about the inner peace that needs to be present in great sprinters. At the 1972 Olympics the Ukrainian Valeriy Borzov, like Bolt in 2008, won the 100m and 200m double. In an interview recorded after his victories, Borzov revealed the favourite training exercise of his first coach, Boris Voitas.

We made paper tubes and Voitas would order us to run 100m holding them in our teeth. The one who did not bite or squeeze the tube was considered a sprinter. The rest were considered to be simply runners. This helped me develop the main quality of a sprinter – the ability to relax.

Bull goes on to explain:

Tension inhibits speed. The moment a sprinter starts to worry about what the man next to him is doing, his muscles tighten and he starts to slow down. Lewis was guided by the principle, taught to him by his coach Tom Tellez, that “human beings can run full speed for 10 metres”, which made it pointless to try and run flat out for the full 100. His rivals, he felt, were so obsessed with getting ahead of him at the start that they began to decelerate by the time they reached 90m, and would tighten up more as they felt Lewis come up on them.

“Don’t worry about anybody else in the race,” Tellez taught Lewis. “Just worry about what you’re doing. If they are ahead of you, don’t worry, just keep accelerating through 60m to 70m in the race, they will come back to you at the end.” Bolt has a similar approach. “Last 10 metres, you’re not going to catch me,” he says. “No matter who you are, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how focused you are, no matter how ready you think you are, you’re not going to catch me.”

“In the 100m,” says Lewis, “a single mistake can cost you victory.” He was not talking about technique – Bolt’s, for instance, is infamously poor, with too much lateral movement, which pushes him sideways off the blocks rather than propelling him down the track – but the negative thoughts that slip into a sprinter’s head during a race. Take this example from the Briton Harry Aikines-Aryeetey at the recent European championships in Helsinki, when he found himself level with the eventual champion, Christophe Lemaitre, in the semi-finals: “I panicked a bit because I was actually with him until about 60m, and I was thinking ‘Oh my God, I haven’t been here for a little while – what do I do?’ I think I tensed up before the end.” He scraped into the final, where he finished fourth.

Bolt has never seemed to worry about anything much, least of all what anyone else is doing. Plenty has been said about the advantage his height gives him – his legs are so long that at full speed he covers 10 metres in three and a half strides. But it is Bolt’s temperament that really sets him apart. Pressure runs off him like water off wax. His shenanigans on the start line at the Beijing Olympics, when he struck poses and played up to the crowd and camera, showed a man at ease with himself and the situation he was in. His finish, when he was beating his chest as he crossed the finish line, was so insouciant that some athletes actually found it offensive.

I’m sure it applies to a lot of other things as well.

It reminds me of one of my favourite poems, by WB Yeats, Long-Legged Fly

That civilisation may not sink,

Its great battle lost,

Quiet the dog, tether the pony

To a distant post;

Our master Caesar is in the tent

Where the maps are spread,

His eyes fixed upon nothing,

A hand under his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence.

 

That the topless towers be burnt

And men recall that face,

Move gently if move you must

In this lonely place.

She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,

That nobody looks; her feet

Practise a tinker shuffle

Picked up on the street.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

Her mind moves upon silence.

 

That girls at puberty may find

The first Adam in their thought,

Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,

Keep those children out.

There on that scaffolding reclines

Michael Angelo.

With no more sound than the mice make

His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence.

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I’ve been choosing some music that I can use during a retreat, to provide a bridge between the words of the input I’m giving and the silence of the time for personal meditation and reflection. I wanted to have a variety of styles, given the variety of participants. I’ve pretty much got the genres of Western polyphony and Catholic/Evangelical worship music covered by my CD collection, so it was good to explore some non-Western Christian music and take myself outside my comfort zone. Here are two of the pieces I chose.

You might say Rachmaninov is part of the Western canon, but in this setting of vespers he is part of a movement that is consciously trying to re-connect Russian sacred music with its roots in traditional Russian chant. This section is the Russian version of the Hail Mary, from All Night Vigil, Op. 37.

And the next piece, sung in Greek and Arabic, is an Easter Chant by Sister Marie Keyrouz, entitled “Christ is risen; in his victorious death he has given life to the dead…”

Sr Keyrouz, a Lebanese nun, is an extraordinary singer (lots of CDs on Amazon here). I first heard her music at a talk by Eamon Duffy, the Cambridge historian. He wanted to show how much of the culture and musical styles that we in the West might associate with Islam, in fact go back beyond the origins of Islam to a pre-Islamic culture. Many of the Eastern chants of Sr Keyrouz, he explained, would have stylistic roots – and possibly even some melodic lines – that stretch back to the 7th century and beyond. You certainly feel that you are being drawn into a profound and living tradition.

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It’s interesting that Danny Boyle has chosen to put Glastonbury Tor at the centre of his Olympic opening ceremony, in his vision of a mythical countryside that will somehow capture the essence of ‘who we are’ as British people.

You can read this in many ways – and I’m sure all will become clear when the ceremony unfolds. On the one hand, Christians should be delighted that a place full of such Christian significance – both in myth and in history – takes centre stage at the Olympics. Glastonbury is where, so the legend goes, Jesus once walked with Joseph of Arimathea. The tree that grew from Joseph’s staff and became the holy thorn is a central part of the Olympic set – linking Jesus’s own supposed international travels with those of the Olympians. And Glastonbury Tor itself has been a Christian shrine for centuries – an outpost of the local abbey, that then became a place of Catholic martyrdom and witness when Richard Whiting, the Abbot, was hanged there for refusing to follow King Henry’s religious reform.

On the other hand, Glastonbury is at the heart of the mythology of pagan Britain, and has become a centre of New Age spirituality and the occult. And surely it is no accident that St Michael’s tower, which dominates the Tor, is completely absent from the models presented to the public by Boyle recently. So I don’t think this will be a nuance-free celebration of the Christian roots of British history and culture.

Paul Kelso writes about Boyle’s presentation:

Revealing details of the opening scenes of a ceremony that will be watched by   more than 500 million people, director Danny Boyle said he was creating a   vision of the “mythic” British countryside that he hoped would capture the   essence of “who we are”.

The main stadium will be transformed into a meadow, with landscaped real grass   laid over the infield and a game of cricket unfolding in one corner. The   theatrical maxim of not working with children or animals will be thoroughly   ignored, as 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine   geese, 70 sheep and three sheep dogs feature in the opening scene.

At one end of the stadium work is already under way on a replica of   Glastonbury Tor, with an oak tree on top instead of the chapel that stands   on the real thing.

In front of the Tor will be a mosh-pit, decorated with the recognisable   Glastonbury flags, where up to 100 members of the public will be allowed to   stand.

At the other end of the stadium, beneath a giant bell, will be the posh-pit,   which will also include members of the public, and reflect, Boyle said, the   spirit of promenaders. In between will stand four maypoles, each styled as the national flower of the   home nations, a rose, a thistle, a daffodil and flax. Overhead on the model unveiled on Tuesday were model clouds, one of which   Boyle said would deliver rain “just in case it doesn’t rain anyway”.

The National Trust, which runs the Tor, explains it’s Christian significance:

For centuries, Glastonbury Tor has been one of the most spiritual places in the world. For many Christians, the Tor was a very important place of pilgrimage.

People have always flocked here to soak up the history surrounding this special site.

Joseph of Arimathea

Some believe that Jesus visited his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, who came to the Mendips to trade in lead and silver.

The story goes that when Joseph was walking on Wearyall Hill and planted his staff into the ground, it took root. It grew into the holy thorn, which is still there today. This was a sign to him to build a church on this site.

The church was made from wattle and daub, and was the first church in England. It’s now known as Glastonbury Abbey. The thorn blooms at Christmas and at Easter time.

The Holy Grail

Legend has it Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail with him after the crucifixion. He hid it in the cavern underneath Glastonbury Tor, which caused two springs to form.

You can fill up bottles of water from this spring today at Chalice Well Lane.

Jesus

It’s said that Joseph of Arimathea brought his sister, Anne, to Israel, where she gave birth to Mary.

Jesus wanted to see the birthplace of his grandmother, so he came to Britain with Joseph of Arimathea.

It’s also said he came to Glastonbury and walked among ‘England’s green and pleasant lands.’

St Patrick visits the Tor

St Patrick is also said to have spent some time at the Tor, as a hermit before he moved on to Ireland.

The Tor quakes

There’s evidence that monks were living on the Tor as far back as the 9th century.

We believe the monks came from the local abbey, to be in solitary reflection at the Tor.

At this point, the church would have been wooden. A stone church was built in the 12th century.

After an earthquake in 1275, the church fell down. In its place a much smaller and sturdier building was put up.

St Michael’s Tower was added later and still remains one of Somerset’s most iconic symbols.

Dissolution and danger

Pilgrimages to the Tor continued, but became more difficult due to the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.

The abbot of the abbey, Richard Whiting, refused to swear his allegiance to Henry. As a consequence, he was hanged from Glastonbury Tor.

His body was then quartered and sent to Wells, Bath, Bridgwater and Illchester. After this, the church fell into disrepair. Its stone was removed, and only the tower remains today.

And if you want to read Simon Jenkin’s guess at where this is all really going, click here.

What was going on? I am reliably informed that this is all a highly crafted – and risky – bit of spin. Two weeks ago Boyle gave a totally different interview about the ceremony, splashed by the Hollywood Reporter. It made no mention of sheep and meadows but said Boyle was “partly inspired by Frankenstein”, about whom he directed a play at the National Theatre last year. The ceremony would be “more like a cauldron, with all the people hovering over and around you.” This implies that something terrible is going to happen to the sheep – and explains the last-minute dropping of pigs as allegedly vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The countryside set was a feint, inducing critics into taking it at face value and “the show”, thus to make the eventual spectacle more shocking. This explains otherwise inexplicable references to The Tempest, William Blake and Frankenstein, which are guiding the subsequent “acts” of Boyle’s show. The second act is a total contrast, the dark side of Blake’s vision, a tableau of storm clouds and satanic mills, of industrial Britain as a place of noise and filth, suffragettes and striking miners.

This is to be followed by a pastiche of cool Britannia. James Bond helicopters zoom up and down the Thames while 900 nurses dance in glorification of the NHS and hi-tech “best of British” products. It sounds like loyal workers dancing in honour of a North Korean “dear leader”. We are told that 10,000 people have needed 157 rehearsals to get the scenes right, and threatened with dismissal if they reveal what they are doing to outsiders or to other parts of the show. The set for prancing nurses at Dagenham is guarded like Guantánamo Bay.

The contents list for all might be a script for the BBC satire, 2012. It is a politically correct miasma of Shakespeare and Frankenstein, Trainspotting and Slumdog, humour and irony, ploughmen and miners, all summoned by a gigantic bell, strangely in honour of Caliban. It is as if Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver were asked to cook the same casserole in the same kitchen. The music is by Underworld, who wrote for Boyle’s Trainspotting and Frankenstein. Paul McCartney will rasp the closing number. This could hardly be further from Tuesday’s vision of Delius and Vaughan Williams. In other words, the countryside was an ironic hors d’oeuvre, to be exploded and splattered over the face the Olympics.

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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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The book we were reading during the retreat, by the way, was The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Everyday Wisdom from the Lives of the Saints, by Robert Ellsberg.

I’ve always liked Ellsberg’s writing, and he is the one who has brought Dorothy Day so much closer to us by editing and publishing her letters and diaries.

This is the blurb about the retreat book from the US publishers.

In All Saints—published in 1997 and already a classic of its kind—Robert Ellsberg told the stories of 365 holy people with great vividness and eloquence. In The Saints’ Guide to Happiness, Ellsberg looks to the saints to answer the questions: What is happiness, and how might we find it?

Countless books answer these questions in terms of personal growth, career success, physical fitness, and the like. The Saints’ Guide to Happiness proposes instead that happiness consists in a grasp of the deepest dimension of our humanity, which characterizes holy people past and present. The book offers a series of “lessons” in the life of the spirit: the struggle to feel alive in a frenzied society; the search for meaningful work, real friendship, and enduring love; the encounter with suffering and death; and the yearning to grasp the ultimate significance of our lives.

In these “lessons,” our guides are the saints: historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila, and moderns such as Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Henri J. Nouwen. In the course of the book the figures familiar from stained-glass windows come to seem exemplars, not just of holy piety but of “life in abundance,” the quality in which happiness and holiness converge.

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After my recent visit, I said would post some information about Pluscarden Abbey.

Do take a look at their website. This is from the home page:

Pluscarden Abbey is the home of a community of Roman Catholic Benedictine monks. It is the only medieval monastery in Britain still inhabited by monks and being used for its original purpose. Situated six miles south-west of Elgin in Moray, the monastery enjoys the peace and stillness of a secluded glen, but is easily reached by road from the town. The atmosphere of quiet reflection and of work dedicated to the glory of God is the same now as it was in the thirteenth century, when a community of monks first came to this part of Moray. If you visit the Abbey today, you can enjoy not only the beauty of its architecture and its setting but also something of the restful atmosphere of devotion that has so deeply permeated this little corner of Scotland.

You can read the fascinating history here, going back to 1230.

Here are some general thoughts about vocation and monastic life:

All men and women are called to love and serve God. They are summoned to strive in prayer and work, as far as they are able, so that by the help of divine grace they may attain to Christian perfection and union with the Holy Trinity. Some are called to serve the world by devoting all their energies to preaching the Gospel and tending the poor and needy. Some are called to bring new life into the world through married love. A few, however, are called in love to “give themselves over to God alone in solitude and silence, in constant prayer and willing penance”; and among these are monks whose “principal duty is to present to the Divine Majesty a service at once humble and noble within the walls of the monastery” (Vatican II Perfectae Caritatis 7 & 9).

And some more specific thoughts about Benedictine life:

In the Prologue to his Rule, St Benedict addresses a man thinking of entering the monastery: “Hearken, my son, to the precepts of the master and incline the ear of your heart; freely accept and faithfully fulfil the instructions of a loving father, that by the labour of obedience you may return to him from whom you strayed by the sloth of disobedience. To you are my words now addressed, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to fight for the true King, Christ the Lord”. This perfectly expresses the loving, austere, obedient and humble life of the cloister and, without any compromise, situates the monk on the victorious side in the cosmic battle between good and evil. He fights in this spiritual combat “against the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (Ephesians 6:12) as part of a community, and his warfare is simply and humbly to live the common life of the monastery. For the Benedictine monk, the monastic community is the context for spiritual struggle and growth.

The Prologue ends with a magnificent vision of the monastic life: “Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service; in founding it we hope to set down nothing that is harsh or burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be at once dismayed by fear and run away from the way of salvation, of which the entrance must needs be narrow. But as we progress in our monastic life and in faith, our hearts shall be enlarged and we shall run with inexpressible sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments; so that, never abandoning his instructions but persevering in his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen.”

And if you are interested in joining, read this first:

The first step is to come and stay at the monastery to see the way of life at first hand. A number of visits are usually recommended, but at some time one should contact the Novice Master and discuss one’s feeling of vocation. If both parties believe God is really calling the candidate, the next steps are usually as follows. Firstly the Novice Master offers the chance of a month in the noviciate, to experience life ‘on the inside’. If this works out, a time is fixed for the postulancy to begin, which usually lasts six months. This is followed by a 2-year noviciate, which begins with the rite of monastic initiation during which the novice is given a new name and the tonsure. The noviciate is a period of formation in the monastic life, with classes in the life of prayer, the Holy Rule, Monastic Tradition, the Psalms, Latin and Gregorian Chant, as well as participation in the work of the community. During it the novice is free to leave at any time and may also be asked to leave.

After the end of the noviciate, there is a vote of the community to allow the novice to take temporary vows and receive the white habit. These vows last for a minimum of three years during which time the junior monk receives further formation in Scripture, Catholic Theology and Liturgy, to enable him to live a fruitful monastic life. After another vote of the community he may proceed to Solemn Vows which make him a full member of the community. There is thus ample time, at least five and a half years, to make a free and informed decision to commit oneself to the monastic life as it is lived at Pluscarden. For those who are thus called it is the best way to serve God and the surest way to peace in this life and eternal beatitude in the next.

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After my talk at St Andrews Catholic Chaplaincy last week we all went to the pub round the corner, and inevitably the conversation turned to the topic of what people could give up for Lent. It goes without saying that Lent is about much more than just ‘giving up something’; but it was interesting to throw around some ideas about what forms of digital fasting and penance could be fruitful over the 40 days of Lent.

Here are the broad categories that came up:

(1) RADICAL DETOX: Just dump it all for the next 40 days. Computers; internet; email; mobile; texting; tweeting; blogging; Facebook; all forms of social media; iPods and mp3 players. Do you include TV in here as well, which is now digital? This is the shock and awe strategy. Total blackout. Everyone said this would be impossible, unrealistic, unwise, not living in the real world, asking for trouble!

(2) SELECTIVE SWITCH-OFF: Choose one form of digital media or communication and let go of that for the whole period of Lent. E.g. No Facebook, or no internet use at all, or no texting. Nearly everyone said this would be impossible, but one or two were open to it.

(3) TARGETED TIME-OUTS: Take all forms of digital media, or choose just one form of digital media, and fast from using them for a pre-determined period. E.g Fridays of Lent; or every day after work, or after 6pm, or after 9pm; or Sundays of Lent. E.g. I need to use the internet at work, but I’ll try not using it in the evenings. E.g. I won’t use Facebook on Fridays, or on Sundays. E.g. one hour a day, perhaps the morning, perhaps the evening, when everything electrical and digital is switched off. E.g. I won’t listen to music on the iPod while travelling but I’ll read instead.

(4) GEOGRAPHICAL SAFE-ZONES: Deciding not to use some or all forms of digital media in certain designated geographical areas; creating ‘safe-zones’, sanctuaries of silence and stillness. E.g. I have enough internet at work, so I don’t need to use it at home. E.g. I’ll use the internet at the desk, but I don’t need to be using it on the mobile constantly. E.g. I switch the phone off for twenty minutes when I sit down to eat at table.

For most people, the third idea of having some kind of digital time-out, on a Friday or a Sunday, will probably be the most realistic – just an hour each week, or an evening or a day, when they are not at the mercy of digital information overload, when they are brave enough to experience being unconnected or just slightly underconnected.

What’s interesting is how much people protest even at the suggestion that one of these options might be possible: the arguments that people throw up, the resistance shown (much of it very rational and reasonable) – it shows how attached we are to this stuff. And just raising the question about how we use digital media, and how they use us, is part of what a prayerful reflection on fasting and penance is meant to cultivate. The important thing is not just to adopt a rule suggested by someone else for the sake of it, but to think of something that could really make a small but significant difference in one’s own life – and see what comes from it.

It’s important to put all the qualifications in here: You don’t take on any of these disciplines because you despise digital media or think they are inherently evil – any more than you fast from food or abstain from meat or chocolate or alcohol because you think these things are bad in themselves.

On the contrary, you recognise that these are good things that can be used for good purposes; but you also recognise that you can become over-attached to them, that they can become idols or addictions, that they can be occasions for sin as well as for good, that their over-use can dull or extinguish the joy they are meant to give, that letting go for a little while can deepen your appreciation for them, that having a discipline and a restriction in place can sometimes make you more free in your approach to something, that there are other good things in life that get crowded out and forgotten in the digital onslaught, that digital noise can make stillness, silence, prayer and even ordinary relationships more difficult, that you are so locked in you don’t know who you really are any more, that it’s important to share in the digital poverty that many people experience as a normal part of life, etc.

All I’m saying is: you don’t need to be anti-digital technology to recognise that there is some value in stepping back and letting go for a while each year – and this is one part of the meaning of fasting and penance for Catholics each Lent.

I like these terms: iFasting, iPenance, and iLent. Of course I thought I invented them, but so far on Google I’ve managed to find this iLent site. I’m still hoping to copyright the first two terms, but you can shatter my illusion of originality by sharing any previous examples of their use you have come across in the comments below.

Or will I get sued by Apple for even mentioning an iWord?

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Here is some information from the Westminster Diocese website about an event for women discerning a call to consecrated life.

Day for Consecrated Life logo

On 4 February 2012 women aged 20-40 are invited to a special day of discernment.

In 1997 Pope John Paul II instituted a ‘World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life’ on February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Each year since then the Church has thanked God for the gift of the different forms of consecrated life, and prayed that our world will continue to be enriched by the lives and witness of consecrated men and women.

In 2012, Westminster Diocese will mark this ‘World Day of Prayer’ in a new way. On Saturday February 4th, there will be a day for women interested in finding out more about consecrated life;  a ‘Come and See’ experience from a ‘neutral’ perspective, held in the Carmelite Priory in Kensington Church Street. The idea is that it will enable women to make a first step into exploring what consecrated life is, with the opportunity to ask questions and interact with religious and with others who are discerning their vocation.

A variety of women religious (representing both active and enclosed congregations) will speak about consecrated life and how to discern if God is calling a person to this way of life. There will also be time set aside for prayer, with both Mass and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

If you, or anyone you know might be interested in attending the day please contact Fr Richard Nesbitt for more details at richardnesbitt@rcdow.org.uk

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For any young adults living within striking distance of London, Soul Food is starting another Life in the Spirit Seminar this week – details copied below. You can see the website here. They are a great group, and I can highly recommend them.

The Life in the Spirit Seminar is a series of talks, worship, scripture, sharing and testimonies that helps us to encounter God’s immense love for us. It opens us up to the power of the Holy Spirit so that we can deepen our personal relationship with Christ and receive the gift of freedom and happiness that he wants for each one of us.

What is the structure of the Life in the Spirit Seminar?

The Life in the Spirit Seminar is made up of 9 sessions and will run mostly on Thursdays from 7 to 9pm at St Charles Borromeo Church, Ogle Street, W1W 6HS:

19th Jan: Session 1 – Welcome and Witness

26th Jan: Session 2 – The Father’s Love

2nd  Feb: Session 3 – Search and Rescue

9th  Feb: Session 4 – Salvation through Jesus

Fri 10th – Sun 12th Feb: Weekend Retreat at the Wycliffe Centre in Buckinghamshire, covering sessions 5 to 7.

Session 5: New Heart, New Spirit

Session 6: Come Holy Spirit

Session 7: Learn to walk, Learn to run

16th Feb: Session 8 – Life in the Spirit: Prayer

23rd Feb  Session 9 – Life in the Spirit: Sacraments & The Church

The format for most sessions will be praise and worship, followed by teaching, personal testimonies and small group sharing. The Life in the Spirit Seminar is a journey of discovery undertaken together as a community so, to get the most out of the series, it is key that you are able to attend all the sessions as well as the retreat weekend.

Please take this opportunity to invite other people who you feel will benefit from attending the Life in the Spirit Seminar.

Weekend Retreat.

The weekend retreat takes place from the evening of Friday 10th February until the afternoon of Sunday 12th February at the Wycliffe Centre in Buckinghamshire.

Although the Life in the Spirit Seminar is free, there is a charge of £135 for the weekend retreat [snip…]

What if I cannot attend the weekend retreat?

You will get the most from the Life in the Spirit Seminar by coming on the weekend retreat but if you cannot come, you are still more than welcome to register and attend the Thursday evening sessions. We will make specific arrangements for people in this situation.

Can I come just for the weekend retreat?

No. The retreat is designed to consolidate and build on the teaching from the Thursday evenings, the scripture prayer programme and the small group sharing over the weeks preceding it.

Still not convinced?

Then read this article on the internet about a previous Life in the Spirit Seminar!

Yes please – how do I register?

Register here

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Catholic devotions are fantastic! Last night, after Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Night Prayer, we processed to the lobby by the front door of the seminary to bless the Epiphany Chalk. Then the Rector took the Holy Chalk, stood on the Holy Step-Ladder, and wrote on the Holy Lintel of the Holy Front Door.

Here is a door from Bamberg marked in the year 2007

OK, I’m getting carried away with the step-ladder, and I know how easily this could all sound a bit mad, or superstitious. But when you realise that it is about faith – that blessings and chalk and inscriptions above doorways can be an outward expression of faith in Christ, and in his power to work in this world and to work through the intercession of his saints – then it makes eminent sense.

Chalk, in itself, doesn’t have any power; but blessed chalk, through our faith in Christ, and in the blessing he gives through his ministers, can be a means for our hearts to be more open to him and our homes to be kept under his protection.

Here is the explanation we were given last night:

The Solemnity of the Lord’s Epiphany is associated with many traditions of popular piety. One such is the blessing of homes, through the intercession of the three wise men, using blessed chalk.

An inscription is made above the front door to entrust the home to God’s protection for the new year and ensure all who enter or leave may enjoy God’s blessing. It looks like this:

20 + C + M + B + 12

The number designates the new year, while the ‘CMB’ stands for the traditional names of the wise men – Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – and also the prayer Christus mansionem benedicat which means ‘May Christ bless this dwelling’.

This blessing is common especially in Central Europe and is often accompanied by processions of children and their parents.

[Cf. Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, 118]

Often broken pieces of chalk are blessed at the end of the Epiphany Mass, using the traditional formula found in the Rituale:

O Lord God, bless this chalk that it may be used for the salvation of the human race.

Through the invocation of Thy most Holy Name, grant that whoever shall take of this chalk and write with it upon the doors of his house the names of Thy saints, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, may through their merits and intercession receive health of body and protection of soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The problem, when I got to my own room and made the inscription, was that the door-frame and the walls are all white. Oh well, it’s there for the angels to see.

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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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I’ve read a few books about Mother Teresa, but I’d still say that Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God is perhaps the best. I picked it up again last week, twenty-five years after I first read it as a teenager. I’d forgotten what an impact it made on me, and how much her spirituality and faith have shaped my own, almost without me realising it.

There was a very practical effect too. I had a free summer at the end of my first year at university and somehow I got the idea of helping the Missionaries of Charity in London. In the end I spent a month living in their hostel for men in Kilburn (it’s since moved): getting to know the men and the sisters; making soup; driving the van, etc. It was a very blessed time for me. The main UK house of the sisters is still in north London, and it’s lovely to see them if I am celebrating Mass in the local parish church at Kensal New Town.

Back to the book: It’s not really a biography, and even if it were it would be way out of date – the copy I have was published in 1971. It’s a couple of extended essays by Malcolm Muggeridge; a selection of quotations from Mother Teresa; an interview; and some wonderful photos of her and the sisters and the people they care for. But somehow it captures the simplicity of her spirit and of her vision much better than larger books.

Muggeridge, when he writes this, is not yet a believer; so as a reader you share in his own fascination with this woman who speaks of a reality he can’t quite grasp. He’s writing about a truth he sees but can’t yet give his heart to; and this tension and slight distance give a certain clarity to the image.

Here is one of the quotations from the book that struck me all those years ago, and which I can still recite from heart:

Make sure that you let God’s grace work in your souls by accepting whatever he gives you, and giving him whatever he takes from you. True holiness consists in doing God’s will with a smile.

It’s easy to quote…

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I gave a talk at the weekend about providence. Is it true that God has a plan for us? Is it true that he guides all that happens within creation, and all that happens within our own individual lives? I wasn’t so much looking at the theology or philosophy of how God ‘acts’ in the world, but rather at the instinctive ways we tend to view things when we are struggling to make sense of events.

I think there are three ‘default’ positions about providence, all incorrect; and we usually fall into one of them even without realising it.

First, there is the idea that God is simply not involved in the ordinary events of life. Everything is random. There is consequently no meaning or purpose in anything that happens. There is no plan. This is an atheist, materialist position; but it’s subconsciously held by many Christians – at least at the level of their psychological reactions to things. It’s pretty bleak.

Second, there is the implicit assumption that as a rule things are random and meaningless and out of God’s control, even though he’s there, in the background. He leaves things to unfold in their own way; and every now and then he steps in to ‘intervene’. I don’t mean through miracles (although they could fit in here); I mean the idea that God only acts on special occasions, when he takes a special interest in something; and that he is fairly detached and indifferent the rest of the time.

I think this view is quite common in the Christian life. We battle on with life as if we are in a Godless world – the structure of our life is to all extents pagan. Every now and then we pray for something specific; every now and then we have an ‘experience’ of God helping us, or doing something particularly important or unexpected, and we are grateful for that and our ‘faith’ is deepened. But in a strange way this gratitude reinforces the hidden assumption that God is actually not present and not actively concerned for us all the rest of the time.

The third faulty view of providence goes to the other extreme. In this case we believe that God is indeed in control of all history and all events. We believe that everything has huge meaning, that everything reflects God’s loving and providential purposes – which it does. But for this reason we want to over-interpret the significance of every single event. Why is the train three minutes late? Why is the car in front of me green and not blue? What’s the significance of me spilling my coffee or waking before my alarm goes off or bumping into you in the street yesterday? This kind of reflection can become a form of superstition; a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It’s true that all these small events are part of God’s providential purposes; and it’s also true that sometimes these small events can have a huge significance for someone. Small and apparently ‘chance’ events lead someone to meet their husband or wife for the first time, or to discover their vocation, or to take a different direction in life.

But here is the theological/spiritual point: not all events are of equal significance; and we won’t necessarily know which event has a particular significancefor us at any moment, or what it’s significance is.

So this is the fourth way, and I think the correct one, of interpreting providence: Everything is in God’s loving hands. He is over all and in all and present to all. Everything does have a meaning, a place in his plan. But we can leave God to do the interpreting and understanding. We won’t always understand, but it makes a huge difference knowing that he understands, that he knows what he is doing. Our response is to trust and to hope; and actively to entrust all that we do and all that we experience to him.

Sometimes, for his reasons, we get a glimpse of why something matters and what it means in the broader picture; and this is very consoling. Sometimes, especially in moments of decision or crisis, we need to come to some clarity about whether something is important for us personally, or for the Church, or for society – and this is why discernment is so important in the Christian life. So trusting in providence does not mean becoming passive or indifferent or fatalistic, or ignoring the call to take responsibility or to work for radical change. It doesn’t mean God takes away our freedom. But our fundamental knowledge that God knows what he is doing and is doing everything for our good takes away the existential anxiety that afflicts the pagan heart, and the obsessive curiosity that afflicts the superstitious mind.

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I was really disturbed by some of the reactions to the recent report into the 2009 Air France crash, which suggested that it would be far better for someone if they had no warning at all about their impending death.

You probably remember hearing about the tragedy: all 228 people aboard were killed when an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic in June 2009. A preliminary report has been written two years after on the basis of information from the aircraft’s black boxes, which were only recovered last month. There is no clear conclusion about what caused the crash – it was partly to do with faulty instrumental readings. The fall took three and a half minutes.

This is the bit that disturbed me, as reported by Elaine Ganley and Jill Lawless:

Some families of victims who said they were given information in a meeting with the agency said it was possible their loved ones went to their deaths unaware of what was happening because there was apparently no contact between the cockpit and cabin crew in the 3 1 / minutes.

“It seems they did not feel more movements and turbulence than you generally feel in storms,” said Jean-Baptiste Audousset, president of a victims’ solidarity association. “So, we think that until impact they did not realize the situation, which for the family is what they want to hear — they did not suffer.”

It’s true that they may not have had to live through the horror of knowing they were falling to their deaths; and I do understand how a relative can find some consolation in knowing this. But surely there are other considerations involved here as well? It must be frightening to know that you are about to die, and I have sat with many people as they face this knowledge and try to come to terms with it – but would you really prefer not to know?

I’m not just writing as a Christian believer now. Yes, as a person of faith, I would rather have a few minutes to pray, to thank God for my life, to say sorry for anything I have done wrong, to offer my life to the Lord, and generally to prepare for my death. But even if I had no faith in God or in a life after death, my impending death would still be a hugely significant horizon, and those last few minutes of life would surely take on an unimaginable significance. I wouldn’t wish for myself that I were left in ignorance. I’d want to know, in order to try to make sense of it, or simply to make the most of it, or at least not to waste it. And I wouldn’t wish for my loved ones to be denied the possibility of knowing that their end was near.

I’m not romanticising death. I’m certainly not pretending that the fear isn’t very real, especially if the knowledge comes quickly and unexpectedly. I’d just rather know. Fear, sometimes, is what helps us to appreciate the significance of some great truth that lies before us; and there aren’t many truths as significant as death.

A film that played with these themes very creatively was Last Night from 1998 (not the new film with Keira Knightley).

Everyone knows that the world is going to end this evening at midnight, and we see how various characters in Toronto react. Their decisions about how to spend the last few hours of their life generally reflect the concerns and priorities of the life they have already lived, the life they have made. Their fundamental intentions are clarified and crystalised in these last moments.

On the other hand, knowing that time is so short, it gives them a chance to make something different of their life. Not so much a moral conversion (although that is also possible), but a reorientation, a new level of authenticity, a sort of redemption – even if the choices some of them made were thoroughly depressing. It’s well worth seeing.

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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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‘Activism’, in the Catholic spiritual tradition, doesn’t refer to a political commitment or to an energetic involvement in a particular project. It’s about the danger, psychologically and spiritually, of getting over-invested in the work that we are doing, of work becoming a compulsion, of forgetting the larger purposes of the work at hand and the larger meaning of life that brings us to do this particular work.

We talk about someone being ‘driven’. It can be an attractive virtue if it points to a certain purposefulness and energy; but it literally means that someone is no longer in the driving seat, they have lost hold of the steering wheel; and the car – the goal, the project, the activity – is doing the driving itself. Another word for this is workaholism.

I’ve just finished re-reading one of the spiritual books that has helped me most in my life, The Soul of the Apostolate, by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, OCSO. It’s first of all a book of theology, about how any apostolic work needs to be rooted in Christ, and how easy it is for a feverish activism to displace one’s spiritual life.

The ‘heresy of good works’ is not the idea that good works are important, it’s the habit of trying to work for the Lord without depending on prayer and the grace of God. It’s when the exterior life is so all-consuming that the interior life is pushed to the side, or squeezed out completely.

But the book is also full of much wisdom at the purely practical/psychological level, about how to keep a work-life balance, the importance of having an inner-detachment from what we are doing, etc. It’s a kind of early self-help/management guru book.

Chautard quotes Geoffrey of Auxerre writing about his master, St Bernard:

Totus primum sibi et sic totus omnibus

Meaning, more or less:

He belonged, first of all, entirely to himself, and thus he belonged entirely to all people

And then he quotes St Bernard himself, writing to Pope Eugenius III.

I do not tell you to withdraw completely from secular occupations. I only exhort you not to throw yourself entirely into them. If you are a man belonging to everyone, belong also to yourself. Otherwise what good would it do you to save everybody else, if you were to be lost yourself? Keep something, then, for yourself, and if everyone comes to drink at your fountain, do not deprive yourself of drinking there too. What! Must you alone go thirsty? Always begin with the consideration of yourself. It would be vain for you to lavish care upon others, and neglect yourself. May all your reflections, then, begin with yourself and end also with yourself. [p42]

This apparent focus on oneself is not a call to selfishness but to the kind of interior recollection and self-awareness that allows you to be truly selfless and at the service of others, because you are not driven but actively giving yourself to the work and to others, and actually having something of yourself to give.

I’ve got an old Tan copy of the book, which is reprinted by St Benedict Press and available at Amazon.

There is a book called Inner Strength for Active Apostles by Chautard published by Sophia Press, which I think is a slightly simplified and modernised version of the same book – on Amazon here. I haven’t read it, but seen it in a bookshop. From what I know of other Sophia Press books it should be very good, and perhaps slightly more accessible than the original version (just because some of the theological language is quite heavy).

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Photo from Milwaukee Journal

Dorothy Day is one of the greatest and most significant Catholics of the twentieth century. Today is the 30th anniversary of her death.

When I left school I worked for six months in a small religious book publishers, and I was asked to do some research in order to revise a pamphlet they wanted to print about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. I spent a couple of days in one of the London libraries reading some of the early biographies, and I was completely bowled over.

It was the simplicity of her love – for Christ, for the poor, for whoever was sitting next to her. It was the fact that she took the gospel seriously, and literally; and believed it was something to be lived and not just explained away. It was her intelligence, which made her think about the causes of poverty and injustice, so that talking, writing, publishing and debating (all for ‘the clarification of thought’) were as much a part of her mission as opening soup kitchens and houses of hospitality. And it was her beauty – the beauty of her writing, the beauty of her life. Much of it, I’m sure, was romanticised – I was 19 and looking for heroes and heroines. But she remains one of the most important people in my life, and her life has shaped my own thinking and the way I look at the world as much as anyone else’s has.

I went on holiday/pilgrimage to New York in the summer of 1998 just after my ordination. I had supper and celebrated Mass in the main Catholic Worker house where she lived and worked, and had some great conversations – she was still remembered and revered. I hunted down the building where the first house of hospitality was set up. By then it was a Chinese takeaway, so I went in and pretended to look at the menu while I took in the atmosphere and the history. I took the boat to Staten Island and found the spot where she is buried. It’s one of these cemeteries without upright headstones, so the lawnmower can sweep right over the graves. You ask a man in the office and he tells you where the small plaque is hidden. I spent a long time there praying.

I still pray to her often. And one of my prayers is that I will live to see her canonised.

If you don’t know much about her, here are some paragraphs from a short life by Robert Ellsberg. If you want to follow this up, the best book to buy is Dorothy Day, Selected Writings, edited by Robert Ellsberg, which is a fantastic collection of short pieces and excerpts from her longer articles and books. The introduction is itself one of the best short biographies you will find.

The Catholic Worker, a lay movement she founded in 1933 and oversaw for nearly fifty years, was an effort to show that the radical gospel commandment of love could be lived. She understood this challenge not just in the personal form of charity (the works of mercy) but in a political form as well, confronting and resisting the social forces which gave rise to such a need for charity. She represented a new type of political holiness – a way of serving Christ not only through prayer and sacrifice but through solidarity with the poor and in struggle along the path of justice and peace.

Day was born in Brooklyn in 1897. Though she was baptized as an Episcopalian she had little exposure to religion. By the time she was in college she had rejected Christianity in favor of the radical cause. She dropped out of school and worked as a journalist in New York with a variety of radical papers and took part in the popular protests of her day. Her friends were communists, anarchists, and an assortment of New York artists and intellectuals, most of the opinion that religion was the “opium of the people.”

A turning point in her life came in 1926 when she was living on Staten Island with a man she deeply loved. She became pregnant, an event that sparked a mysterious conversion. The experience of what she called natural happiness, combined with a sense of the aimlessness of her Bohemian existence, turned her heart to God. She decided she would have her child baptized as a Roman Catholic, a step she herself followed in 1927. The immediate impact of this was the painful end of her common law marriage. The man she loved had no use for marriage. But she also suffered from the sense that her conversion represented a betrayal of the cause of the poor. The church, though in many ways the home of the poor, seemed otherwise to identify with the status quo. So she spent some lonely years in the wilderness, raising her child alone, while praying for some way of reconciling her faith and her commitment to social justice.

The answer came in 1932 with a providential meeting. Peter Maurin, an itinerant philosopher and agitator, encouraged her to begin a newspaper that would offer solidarity with the workers and a critique of the social system from the radical perspective of the Gospels. The Catholic Worker was launched on May 1, 1933. Like a true prophet, Maurin was concerned not simply to denounce injustice but to announce a new social order, based on the recognition of Christ in one’s neighbors. In an effort to practice what they preached, Day converted the office of the Catholic Worker into a “house of hospitality” – the first of many – offering food for the hungry and shelter for the tired masses uprooted by the Depression.

But Day’s message did not end with the works of mercy. For her the logic of the Sermon on the Mount also led to an uncompromising commitment to nonviolence. Despite widespread criticism she maintained a pacifist position throughout World War 11 and later took part in numerous civil disobedience campaigns against the spirit of the Cold War and the peril of nuclear war. Later, in the 1960s, when social protest became almost commonplace, Day’s peacemaking witness – rooted in her daily life among the poor and sustained by the discipline of liturgy and prayer – retained a particular credibility and challenge.

The enigma of Dorothy Day was her ability to reconcile her radical social positions (she called herself an anarchist as well as a pacifist) with a traditional and even conservative piety. Her commitment to poverty, obedience, and chastity was as firm as any nun’s. But she remained thoroughly immersed in the secular world with all the “precarity” and disorder that came with life among the poor.

You can find a link to the London Catholic Worker here.

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I gave a talk at the weekend to the Catholic Society of the University of Hertfordshire, which meets for Mass and a social every Sunday evening at St Peter’s parish in Hatfield.

I was asked to speak about ‘the universal call to holiness’, which gave me an excuse to re-read chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium, the document about the Church from the Second Vatican Council.

An anonymous saint

One of the themes touched on there goes to the very heart of the Christian mystery: that holiness is both a sheer, unmerited gift; and also something that we have to choose and strive after. And even the choosing, somehow, is a gift. ‘By God’s gift, [Christians] must hold onto and complete in their lives this holiness they have received.’

It reminded me of that well-known phrase: ‘Act as if everything depended on you; and pray as if everything depended on God’. I’m quoting from memory. Is it St Augustine? But then I read someone else saying that it is equally profound, and challenging in a different way, to reverse the endings: ‘Pray as if everything depended on you; and act as if everything depended on God’.

Meaning (I think): Pray really hard for God’s help, as if your prayers really matter (which they do), and as if the actions about which you are praying will have enormous consequences (which they will). But then act with an inner detachment, even with a sort of ‘holy indifference’ to the consequences, because you know that God alone is guiding the unfolding of events, and God alone can bring true good out of the situation. So the inner resignation brings a kind of serenity to one’s actions, it takes away the sense of panic or despair that can arise with an unhealthy sense of one’s own importance, without taking away from the wholehearted commitment to the task at hand.

I think both versions are helpful.

Here is how paragraph 40 of Lumen Gentium puts it. (You’ll have to look up the footnotes online.)

The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and everyone of His disciples of every condition. He Himself stands as the author and consumator of this holiness of life: “Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect”.(216)(2*) Indeed He sent the Holy Spirit upon all men that He might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength(217) and that they might love each other as Christ loves them.(218) The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God’s gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received. They are warned by the Apostle to live “as becomes saints”,(219) and to put on “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience”,(220) and to possess the fruit of the Spirit in holiness.(221) Since truly we all offend in many things (222) we all need God’s mercies continually and we all must daily pray: “Forgive us our debts”(223)(3*)

Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity;(4*) by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history.

(216 Mt. 5, 48. 217 Cf. Mc. 12, 30. 218 Cf Jn. 13, 34; 15, 12. 219 Eph. 5, 3. 220 Col . 3, 12. 221 Cf. Gal. 5, 22; Rom. 6, 22. 222 Cf. Jas. 3, 2. 223 1 Mt. 6, 12.)

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Following on from the last post, here is the section of the interview I gave recently that dealt with questions of faith and religion in a city as multi-cultural as London.

LLO: As a catholic priest and philosopher, how important would you say religion is in people’s lives in London today compared to when you started out in your career?
SW:
There are various crosscurrents: some people are much more secular, hardened in their secularism, and dismissive of religion. Yet many more people seem interested in religion who are not believers — as if they are more open to spiritual and transcendent questions, more open to the idea of spirituality and prayer. And religion is a bigger cultural and political reality than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Plus the new immigrants tend to be people of faith (indeed anyone coming to London from outside Western Europe tends to be a person of faith!)

LLO: You recently contributed to a BBC Online article about celibacy, sharing your own experiences. The post on your blog includes tags “happiness” and “loneliness”. Is this commitment one you ever regret or are you content in your decision?
SW:
I don’t regret the decision I have made at all. The whole life of being a priest, including celibacy, has brought me enormous happiness. And the celibacy itself has given me a real freedom, a freedom of heart – to be present with other people in all sorts of wonderful ways; and to pray in a way that would be difficult if I had the responsibilities of family life. I couldn’t live this way without the love of friends and extended family and the communities I have lived in over this time.

LLO: Tell us about something, someone or somewhere you’ve discovered in London that you think the rest of us should know about.
SW:
One secular and unknown: The Clockmakers’ Museum at Guildhall, a single room containing the whole history of clocks and watches, including John Harrison’s 5th marine timekeeper made famous by the book Longitude. One religious and very well known, but I’m still amazed by how many Londoners have never been in it: Westminster Cathedral (not the Abbey), an oasis of calm and devotion near Victoria Station, full of amazing art and architecture.

LLO: With Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and others living side by side in London, what sort of atmosphere is created when people of every religion mingle in this melting pot city?
SW:
The whole world is here in London, and probably every language and religion. It’s good that we can live side by side, and in peace. Perhaps people don’t talk enough: We occupy the same social space, but often stay within our own mental worlds – unless there is something like a school or sports club or whatever to bring people together. London Citizens is a wonderful grassroots example of people of all faiths and none coming together for justice issues and forming real bonds through that common work. When I get back from Lourdes I want to start talking to strangers in London, but very soon I realize I am becoming one of those crazy people that Londoners fear…

LLO: What do you say to people who are suspicious of religion as being manipulative or deceptive?
SW:
It’s true that religion can sometimes be manipulative and deceptive – we have to admit that and watch out for it very carefully. And as a Catholic priest I wouldn’t push the abstract idea of ‘religion’ for its own sake. But religions can also be sources of spirituality, community, liberation and healing for many people. That’s something to be open to and not afraid of.

LLO: What’s your favourite part about living in your postcode?
SW:
Being near the river; living close to three cinemas; the number 19 bus.

[The clock pictured above is not from the Clockmakers’ Museum, but (I think) from the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. This is the tag that comes with the photo: “Peter Clare, a local clockmaker, made this clock for Manchester Corporation. From 1848, this was the official clock for Manchester, showing the current time as measured at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. At first, astronomy was used to regulate the clock to Greenwich Time. After 1852, the Royal Observatory transmitted the time hourly by telegraph. The clock stood in the Town Hall on King Street where people could use it to set the time on their own watches and clocks. Greenwich Mean Time was not adopted as the national standard time until 1880. The clock was moved to the City Art Gallery in 1912. It was moved here in 1998 when the Art Gallery closed for major building work.”]

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Stephanie Sadler runs a lovely blog called Little London Observationist. Her tag-line is a quote from Robert Brault: “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”

She has a series of posts called ‘Listen to a Londoner’, and I was honoured to be the subject of her interview yesterday. Some readers might be interested, although I mustn’t assume everyone is as London-centric as I am. It’s too long to paste in one go. The first half of the interview was about general London living – so let me copy it here. And then I’ll put up the reflections on religion which came at the end.

LLO: As a born and raised Londoner, what are the most noticeable ways the city has evolved in your lifetime?
SW:
 It’s bigger and busier. I remember a study recently about how our walking speed has increased (they secretly time you crossing bridges etc). It’s more culturally and ethnically diverse. Immigration has enriched London immensely. Random landmarks that didn’t exist when I was born in 1966: the Gherkin, the Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, Oyster Cards, sculptures on the fourth plinth, Boris Bikes, Tate Modern, the ubiquitous CCTV camera. Tragic losses: the Routemaster bus.

LLO: Tell us a bit about your background and your blog, Bridges and Tangents.
SW:
 I was born in University College Hospital just off Tottenham Court Road, when my parents were living in Chiswick. I grew up in Harpenden, near St Albans. I’m a Catholic priest and I work in the seminary in Chelsea, where we prepare men for the priesthood. I never imagined I’d start a blog. It happened quite quickly. I was thinking of writing a book, and a friend pointed out that if I really wanted to communicate and share ideas, then a blog would be more immediate and reach far more people. The penny dropped.

LLO: Freedom is your most used tag on your blog. In a recent post, you wrote “Perfect freedom is being able to step off the back of a London bus whenever you want, whatever the reason, and walk into the sunset without a bus-stop in sight.” Are there other London moments that give you a perfect sense of freedom?
SW:
The fact that London is a city for walking around gives me the greatest sense of freedom. Other random moments of exhilaration, freedom and space include: sitting at the front on the top deck of a double-decker bus; looking at the cityscape from the middle of any of London’s beautiful bridges; jaywalking with abandon — in the knowledge that this would be illegal in some countries; walking through the parks; and along the river at South Bank.

LLO: Can you recommend a few places in London to go for a sense of spirituality without stepping foot in a church/temple/mosque, etc?
SW:
 Whenever the next Kieslowski retrospective runs at the British Film Institute; standing over the Greenwich Prime Meridian line, knowing that you are at the still point of the cartographic world; walking round the Serpentine; the Jubilee Line station at Canary Wharf.

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You have probably seen the Sky ‘no compromise’ TV advertising campaign in which Eric Cantona, Forrest Gump-like, walks through some of the great moments of sporting history.

I saw one of the associated posters driving down the A40 recently, which has Cantona looking broody beside the following caption:

WHAT’S THE POINT OF GREATNESS IF YOU CANNOT WATCH IT?

It’s meant as a rhetorical question, but surely there are plenty of answers. Even before I had hit the next set of traffic lights my mind darted from the exquisite carvings around the vault of a gothic cathedral, too distant for the unaided human eye to see, to the spiritual heroism of an enclosed nun like St Thérèse of Lisieux, to the hundreds of thousands of relatives caring for their sick and disabled loved ones without acknowledgement or reward.

But perhaps Eric and his Sky-paymasters would counter, like the medieval theologians, that all this hidden greatness is indeed meant to be seen: in the present moment by God, and at the end of time at the Last Judgment by the whole of creation. Quite an audience. And perhaps they’d give an even less theological answer, which is that I can only point to examples of such hidden greatness and humility because they have in fact come to light. I can take my binoculars to Chartres Cathedral, read a book about Thérèse, or see a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the lives of carers in modern Britain. Technology and the media have made it possible for me to discover this hidden greatness for myself and then to speak about it to others. Lots of paradoxes here.

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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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Everyone thinks they are too busy. Most people admit that communications technologies and the internet have increased the pressures on them to perform and respond and race ahead. Not many people have any suggestions about how to find spiritual peace or mindfulness in this wired world.

David Gelles writes about the recent “Wisdom 2.0 Summit”, which tried to bridge the gap between our hunger for enlightenment and the frenetic reality of our working lives:

This was the first Wisdom 2.0 summit, which convened a few hundred spiritually minded technologists – everyone from Buddhist nuns to yogic computer scientists – for two days of panels and presentations on consciousness and computers. The goal: to share tips on how to stay sane amid the tweets, blips, drops and pings of modern life. The temple: the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, a stone’s throw from the Googleplex. Attendees took in panels on “Living Consciously and Effectively in a Connected World” and “Awareness and Wisdom in the Age of Technology”.

“The problem with the kind of jobs we have is that there is no knob to dial down,” said Gopi Kallayil, an Indian-born marketing manager for Google who studied yoga at an ashram when he was younger. He spoke for many of the participants who professed a deep frustration with their inability to find serenity in an increasingly wired modern world. “If you get on the bandwagon you have to operate at a certain pace or not all.”

Mr Kallayil and others discussed how to squeeze a bit of quietude into the day. Suggestions included meditating before meetings.

Yet a nagging duality overshadowed every conversation. It seemed that almost everyone believed that our constant web surfing, no matter how noble its intent, is not conducive to the spiritual life. “As much as we’re connected, it seems like we’re very disconnected,” said Soren Gordhamer, the conference organiser. “These technologies are awesome, but what does it mean to use them consciously?”

Greg Pass, Twitter’s technology officer, teaches Tai Chi in the company’s office, and exhorts incoming employees to ‘pay attention’ and live in the present moment. Leah Pearlman took a 6-month sabbatical from her Facebook job and now composes all her Friday emails in haiku form:

Ms Pearlman was an example of someone who has successfully integrated a bit of wisdom into work. But a more fundamental question lingered: if spiritual success is more important than worldly gains, why toil away in offices at all? “When the time comes and we’re on our deathbed and we’re saying goodbye to our body and bank account and Facebook account and Twitter account, what’s really going to matter?” asked Mr Gordhamer. If there is an answer, it probably will not be found through a Google search.

And despite technology’s distractions, there was no sense that the crowd was set to abandon Facebook or Twitter. Even those devoted to the spiritual path were committed to keeping their status updated. “I’m extremely grateful for the world of the computer,” said Roshi Joan Halifax, a Zen Buddhist nun. “When I was introduced to the computer, I thought I had gone to heaven.”

Our answer here in the seminary is to have 45 minutes in the chapel each morning – of silence, personal meditation, and communal prayer. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are all able to maintain our inner peace throughout the next  sixteen hours, but it certainly helps.

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No-one would pretend that religious life in Britain is booming. Religious congregations are greying; most of them are closing individual houses here and there; and many are winding up their presence in this country altogether, unable to sustain the numbers to keep a province going. This is true for both enclosed and apostolic religious life.

None of this negates the amazing witness and work of religious brothers and sisters in recent generations, but it raises questions about the meaning of religious life and its place in Christian culture.

So it was particularly inspiring to be at the profession of a young sister at the weekend. Despite the travel chaos that kept a number of guests away, Sister Clare Ruvarashe of the Cross made her final profession in the Poor Clare community at Arundel.

Assisi -  Italien - Italy - Monastery - Kirche - Church - "Franz von Assisi" by Ela2007.

Assisi and the Basilica of St Clare

What made her join? Well, it’s not my job to speak for her, you can read her story here. For a shortened explanation, she chose to have these words from the prophet Jeremiah printed on the back of her booklet:

O Lord, You have seduced me, and I have let myself be seduced. Your word in my heart is like a consuming fire burning deep within my bones. [Jer 20:7]

It made me reflect on all the positive signs of religious life in Britain, and how it is not all one tidy story of ageing and exile. Just in my own random experience as a priest over the last few years I have known young women, in this country, who are in formation as Poor Clares, apostolic Franciscans, Benedictines, Assumptionists, Missionaries of Charity, Sisters of the Gospel of Life, Carmelites, the Community of Lady of Walsingham, and as three different ‘types’ of Dominicans. And young men in formation as Franciscans, Benedictines, Dominicans, Salvatorians, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Norbertines, Carmelites, Fransalians, Jesuits, as two ‘types’ of Augustinians, and as Oratorians (not strictly ‘religious’). I’m sure there are many others who have slipped my mind, and I know there are many other congregations and communities with new members that I just don’t happen to know.

It’s not an avalanche, but it shows the continuing attraction of religious life for many young people, and it must be an encouragement to all those religious men and women who have been so faithful to their vocation over the years, and given so much to the Church in this country.

Here are the questions that Sister Clare was asked on Saturday by Bishop Kieran Conry. It’s poweful stuff!

By baptism you have been consecrated to God. Following St Clare, do you wish ‘to love Him totally who gave Himself totally for your love’?

Do you wish to follow the way set out by Clare – ‘to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own and in chastity’?

Clare said to her sisters: ‘Love one another with the love with which Christ has loved you, so that all the sisters may always grow in love for God and for each other’. Do you wish to open your heart to the whole world in this way?

Clare wrote to her friend Sister Agnes in Prague: ‘As a Poor Sister, embrace the poor and crucified Christ, gaze at Him, think about Him and desire to imitate Him’. Do you, by renouncing every kind of possession and privilege, wish to talk along the way of poverty by living with nothing of your own?

Clare says in her Rule: ‘May the sisters desire above all else to possess the Spirit of the Lord, and to pray always to Him with a pure heart’. Do you wish to welcome our Saviour in prayer and silence?

And to each question Sister Clare answered:

Yes, by the grace of God and with the help of my sisters.

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I’m just back from a week of silent retreat. (No, I wasn’t blogging while I was away! The last two posts were on the timer: written before I went and then scheduled to post automatically, just in case any readers were going to get withdrawal symptoms.)

I’m not going to debrief about my spiritual life online, but I can share just one experience that forms part of the ritual of going on retreat each year that gave me pause for thought: emptying the pockets. I arrived in my room at the retreat house, put the suitcase on the bed, and without much reflection started to empty my trouser pockets onto the shelf in the wardrobe, knowing I wouldn’t be needing all this stuff for the next week.

And what was this ‘stuff’? Car keys, house keys, room keys, cupboard keys; mobile phone; wallet (cash, credit card, debit card, driving licence, celebret, Marks and Spencer vouchers, Oyster card); electronic organiser (diary, contacts, to do list, memos – yes, I am dinosaur enough to still have a Palm PDA; much better designed software, by the way, than an iPhone); loose change.

All of this, I realised perhaps for the first time, I have on me all the time, in three trouser pockets – ‘on my person’ as the phrase goes. All of this, normally, I’m afraid to leave the house without it. It’s part of who I am, and it’s hugely symbolic: I ‘am’ the possibility of connecting, communicating, calling, remembering, driving, travelling, entering, opening, unlocking, spending, borrowing, organising, meeting, doing. And all of this, for just a few days, I could put in a cupboard. It was so strange and liberating to go for a walk each morning without it all; not just into the garden, but out into the surrounding streets and the ‘real world’.

my pocket watch rules by chrisdlugosz.

Of course my pockets weren’t actually empty! I kept on me my room key and a watch. In other words, I was happy to let go of all the stuff for a week, but I wasn’t prepared to renounce it completely and take the risk of it being stolen. I’ll put it down, but I won’t give it up. And above all else, the watch: I didn’t want to lose track of time and miss my lunch…

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There’s a beautiful meditation about time, busyness and the difficulty of living in the present moment at The Invisible Province.

Time by Robbert van der Steeg.

The piece is partly a review of Eva Hoffman’s book Time. But Fr Martin Boland frames this with his own reflections:

We can become so focussed on busyness and speed that we begin to lose a proper sense of ourselves. Individuals can feel that their lives are “spinning out of control” or worse, are about to “break down”. The common response to the question, “How are you?”, has become “I’m busy.” We define ourselves in terms of frenetic activity. At the same time, other aspects and dimensions of our life (family, friendship, the social and the spiritual) are eroded by the constant pressures on our time. “We are money rich, but time poor,” as someone put it to me the other day.

He quotes Hoffman on what we feel about the pressures of time here in Britain:

On more familiar ground, Leon Kreitzman in The 24 Hour Society, a study of time patterns in Britain published in 1999, finds that “A large proportion of the British population believe that they are overworked, and that life is out of control.” Few, however, choose to, or can afford to, work less. Rather, as Peter Cochrane, then head of research as British Telecom pithily notes, the contemporary work conditions have created a new class divide within society: between “those who spend a lot of time trying to save money”, and “those who spend a lot of money trying to save time.”

Busy Subterranean Passage - せわしない地下道 by W2 a-w-f-i-l.

And the post finishes with this reflection about the present moment and the importance of waiting:

One of the dangers of living under the unforgiving eye of the clock is that we risk losing the faculty of concentrated contemplation. In our haste, reality becomes a blur and we stop seeing the interior mystery of the present moment. Activism prevents the sublime contours of people and things being slowly revealed to us in their own time and at their own rhythm. Living at high-speed, make acts of reverence almost impossible, partly because, in a secular age, there are few things that can command such contemplation and respect. The prospect of waiting for the auspicious moment and living with the tension of incompleteness has become anathema to many people. Instead, we bypass natural gestation periods, and force things (work, relationships, ideas, “spirituality”) into a premature birth and then wonder why they don’t answer our true longings. We substitute the twitter soundbite for deep thinking; the ticked box for an action done with care and attention; the slick meditation centre for the wisdom of a fourth century monk living in the Egyptian desert:

Unless there is a still centre in the middle of the storm
Unless a person in the midst of all their activities
preserves a secret room in their heart where they stand alone before God
Unless we do all this we will lose all sense of spiritual direction
and be torn to pieces.

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[UPDATED VERSION BELOW WITH FULLER LIST OF UK SCREENINGS – posted at 6 April 2010]

In a previous post I wrote about the film No Greater Love, a documentary about the Carmelite sisters in Notting Hill. Here are the details about its cinematic release next month. Do go and see it if you get the chance. See this note from the producer:

I am writing to tell you about a film I have produced called No Greater Love. After 10 years of correspondence, Michael Whyte was given unrestricted access to the closed Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in London’s Notting Hill. The film gives a unique insight into a world of prayer and contemplation away from the materialism of contemporary society and explores what it means to live a life of faith. Critics have said about the film: “Courageous, compelling, and deeply moving” (**** Empire). And  “This is a beautiful, informative and inspiring study of a way of life defiantly at odds with the glitzy priorities and frenetic pace of the outside world.” Edinburgh Film Festival

No Greater Love
will be released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on April 9th 2010 and will be available on DVD in the summer.  Many of the screenings will be followed by a Q & A with the Director Michael Whyte. There follows a list of screening dates and venues (unfortunately screening times are not confirmed until 4 or 5 days before),  which are also available on our website: http://www.nogreaterlove.co.uk  For further information please phone Soda Pictures Tel: 020 7377 1407.

London Screening Times and Information
There will be a screening at the Renoir Cinema, The Brunswick, London, WC1N 1AW, on Monday 12th April at 6.05pm followed by a Q & A with the Director Michael Whyte. You can book tickets via the Renoir’s website: http://www.curzoncinemas.com/box_office/book_tickets/dlydkq
or by phoning: 0871 703 3991  

No Greater Love  will also screen from 9th April for a week of matinées, time to be confirmed, at the Gate Cinema, Notting Hill Gate, London. There will be a Q & A with the director on 10th April.   To book tickets or for further information regarding screening times please phone the Gate Cinema 0871 704 2058

Other London Screenings:
9th April + Q & A at Lexi Cinema, Kensal Rise, London tel: 0871 7042069
13th April plus Q & A’s at Rich Mix Cinema, Bethnal Green, London E.1. Tel:  020 7613 7498
And Genesis Cinema, Mile End Road, London E1 tel: 020 7780 2000
16th April + Q & A at HMV Curzon, Wimbledon, London
16th May + Q & A Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London,

Other screenings in the UK:
9th April & 7th May at the Cameo, Edinburgh tel: 0871 704 2052
14th April + Q & A at the Nottingham Broadway Tel: 0115 952 6611
19th April + Q & A at the Bristol Watershed Tel: 0117 927 5100
21st April + Q & A at the Cornerhouse, Manchester Tel: 0161 200 1500
23rd April at the Filmhouse Edinburgh tel: 0131 228 2688
26th April at the Glasgow Film Theatre, Tel: 0141 332 6535
30th April at the Little Theatre, Bath, Tel: 01225466 822
30th April at the Phoenix Leicester Tel: 0116 2422800
1st May at the Belmont, Aberdeen Tel: 01224 643 498
16th May at the Queens Film Theatre, Belfast, Tel: 028 9024 4857
16th May + Q & A at Norwich Cinema City tel: 0871 704 2053
18th May at Stamford Arts Centre Tel: 01780 753 458
23rd May at Exeter Picturehouse Tel: 01392 285 960
24th May at Dukes Lancaster Tel: 01524 598 501
25th May + Q & A at Chapter Cardiff Tel: 029 2031 1050
26th May + Q & A at Oxford Phoenix Tel 0871 704 2062

Thank you for your support and help. Kind regards, Janine Marmot
Hot Property Films Ltd
http://www.nogreaterlove.co.uk  

No Greater Love wins Audience Award for Best Feature Film at Berlin Britspotting Film Festival,

No Greater Love has screened at the following Festivals:

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