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Posts Tagged ‘grace’

I gave a talk about baptism this weekend at a retreat, and by sheer coincidence/providence I happened to visit – for the first time ever as an adult – the church of my own baptism in west London. I knew it was there; I’d just never made the time to go and find it.

The talk was part of the wonderful Expression 2012 – a retreat for young people in Salisbury, now in its third year. The topic I had been asked to speak about was ‘living your faith in the world’. So instead of making up my own list of ‘spiritual resources’ that could be helpful for any young Catholic trying to live their faith, I spoke about the ‘resources’ that the Church herself gives to each one of us at our baptism: a set of godparents (representing the support of the whole Church), a creed (representing the richness of the whole Catholic faith), a baptismal robe (representing our new-found dignity as a children of God and the purity of heart that we hope to preserve), and a baptismal candle (representing the light and love of Christ).

I know we are given many other things as well, but these very concrete and visual gifts gave me an opportunity to talk about some of the habits that make living one’s faith easier and more joyful than it might be, and make it less likely that we will lose it: trying to find Catholic friends and groups that will support you; reading the bible and learning about your faith; trying to live by your Catholic values and be a person of kindness and charity; and coming to know the love of Christ in a personal and intimate way through prayer and the sacraments.

So baptism was on my mind this weekend, but not particularly in a personal way. Then I got a lift back to London with a friend, who dropped me off at Gunnersbury station. Then I find that the tube is closed for the weekend, and there is the dreaded bus replacement service in its place. I try to ‘relax into’ the ordeal, as I’m in no rush to get back. The bus comes, and it drops everyone off at Turnham Green station to pick up the District Line. And there, directly opposite the station, is the Anglican church where I was baptised 45 years ago! St Michael and All Saints, Bedford Park.

It was incredibly moving to step inside for the first time in all these years, especially after the reflection at the weekend, and after being very touched by the adult baptisms in  Westminster Cathedral at the Easter Vigil. This is the place where my Christian faith began – where I was clothed in Christ all those years ago, cleansed from original sin, adopted as a child of God, incorporated into Christ’s body the Church, and made a sharer in the life of the Most Holy Trinity. I had a good look at the font – I assume it was the one in use back in the ’60s – and said a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving for the grace of baptism, and for the faith of my parents and godparents that brought me there.

It’s a beautiful and highly distinctive church – see the image above. The font is at the back, with an enormous ‘lid/cap’ (technical term please?) hanging from the ceiling. I pushed it aside a couple of inches to see inside, but then became terrified that the whole contraption would collapse around me.

The church seems to be very Anglo-Catholic, but I’m not very good at telling these things: the seven windows in the east wall depict the seven sacraments; there are votive candles and Stations of the Cross; a tabernacle above the high altar in the sanctuary; and even a statue of St Joan of Arc!

In case anyone is confused – my parents were both Anglican when I was born, hence my baptism here at the Anglican parish church in Turnham Green (off Chiswick High Road).

I’m always telling parents to celebrate the anniversary of their children’s baptisms each year, with as much festivity as they would their birthdays. It was good to remember my own baptism this weekend.

[Update: I just found a photo of the baptismal font on Flickr! Here it is:]

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I was at St Patrick’s in Soho Square yesterday evening, for the middle part of a three-day celebration to mark the re-opening of the church after extensive repairs and refurbishment, and a complete remodelling of the crypt area.

St Patrick's from the outside - I can't find a shareable image of the new interior!

The overwhelming impression is of light, order and grace – qualities that I think are much-needed in this part of London.

It’s interesting that the re-opening has been reported in the secular as well as the Catholic press, a recognition that the event, and the church itself, have a particular significance for the wider London community and not just for Catholics.

This is how Riazat Butt in the Guardian reported it:

A former bordello and music hall owned by one of Casanova’s mistresses is perhaps an unlikely site for one of Britain’s oldest Roman Catholic churches, St Patrick’s, which sits amid the bright lights and fleshpots of London’s Soho.

“It is not a conventional parish,” observes Father Alexander Sherbrooke, who has overseen a 14-month, £3.5m project to restore the church and rid it of the damage caused by damp, dry rot, urban pollution, incense and candlelight. It reopens this week with a specially composed Magnificat from James MacMillan and a mass from Cardinal George Pell, who is flying in from Rome for the occasion.

The traditional nature of the celebrations – vespers and canticles – highlights the contrast between the orthodoxy of St Patrick’s and what lies outside it.

Sherbrooke says: “You get a knock on the door and it can be someone who is successful in business, someone who wants a sandwich or someone caught up in the sex industry. We leave our SOS prayer line calling cards in telephone boxes – where you might see other services advertised.

“One man who called said he was a pimp and wanted to break out of his occupation but that it was too lucrative for him to leave. Do we just accept the way people are? People get into ruts they find it difficult to break out of. We can say, as Christians, that God can and does intervene.”

Butt is impressed by the openness and outreach of the Catholic community at St Patrick’s:

The restoration work includes the creation of a crypt, classrooms and a cafe. St Patrick’s and a team of volunteers feed 80 to 90 homeless people a week with the Groucho – a private members’ club – supplying the puddings.

The work to the church will allow the team to cook and serve food from one location instead of having to prepare the meals in their own kitchens and drive them into central London.

Space will also be provided for alcohol and drug counselling. St Patrick’s will be the only Roman Catholic church offering this service in London […]

Migrant communities continue to be the lifeblood of the parish. On a typical Sunday St Patrick’s – or rather its temporary location at the House of St Barnabas – will attract around 700 people to five services, two in English, one in Spanish, one in Portuguese and one in Cantonese.

Alexander says: “In this part of London you don’t have resident parishioners. There are tourists who know we are here and workers. It is a place where they can rest their weary feet. There is a little bit of bucking the trend going on. The loneliness of this city is more intense than you can imagine. Soho has a darkness as well as the bright lights.”

Parishioners believe the church is important to Soho and to London. Pauline Stuart, who has been part of St Patrick’s for nine years, says: “We’re not the establishment – we can do things that Westminster Cathedral can’t. I do get comments sometimes – you know, ‘what’s a nice girl like you believing in all that mumbo jumbo’. But for me it’s true. I don’t care whether they convert or not. That’s God’s problem.”

It’s open all day, every day, so do pop in if you are in central London over the next few weeks – or indeed any time. There is a map and travel details here.

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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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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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I’ve just finished the novel Home by Marilynne Robinson. It’s about the simplest of relationships – being a son, a daughter, a father – and all the heartbreaking complexities that arise within them. It’s about not understanding someone, and still loving them. It’s about not understanding oneself.

I nearly gave up halfway. The atmosphere of sadness almost overwhelmed me. And it’s so slow, clocking the hours as Jack Boughton tries to connect with his family after a twenty year absence. But this is the point. That in the monotony of domestic life, as people circle round each other – wary, uncertain – the small moments of tenderness and self-revelation are startling.

Grace is almost tangible. A natural grace that dignifies even those human hearts that seem most broken. And by the end, without any tidy resolutions, it makes you believe that hope is possible even when there is no sense of how that hope might be fulfilled.

I can’t recommend this novel, together with Robinson’s Gilead, highly enough.

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