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Posts Tagged ‘heart’

I’ve been thinking about Simone Lia’s graphic novel Please God, Find Me A Husband! And especially about how the comic/cartoon format allows her to express herself, even to bare her soul, in a way that is unusually unguarded. There is a childlike simplicity about what is expressed within each speech bubble, even a naivety.

Somehow it works. It doesn’t feel like an awkward confessional novel; it doesn’t feel inappropriate or embarrassing. It’s as if the inner child that sits within each adult experience is allowed to speak. The simple truth put into simple words, without self-censorship, without filtering it for the hearer. Not everything in adult life, of course, is simple; but lots of it is – and we often make it complicated, for a thousand personal and social reasons.

It reminds me of two personal experiences. One is having to speak in a foreign language when you are no good at it. I went to Rome for my seminary formation, and the time given to learning Italian in those days was woefully inadequate. But it meant I had to form relationships, sometimes quite deep ones, using two tenses and just a few hundred words.

At one level I was constantly not being myself, because I could never say what I really meant; but at another level I was being more simply myself (or being more my simple self) because I had to become less eloquent, less considered, more straightforward, more childlike. If you only know a few words, you have to say what you mean crudely and clumsily, and sometimes this is less truthful, but sometimes it can be more truthful as well.

The other experience is of preaching to children when there are adults present, say at a ‘Family Mass’ on a Sunday morning in a parish when there are more children than adults, or a school Mass with parents and teachers present. You are aiming your sermon, for example, at a five or seven year old; you are simplifying your language, slowing down, trying to choose appropriate images and ideas, cutting out the flannel. You are speaking, almost, in the language of a graphic novel or a strip cartoon. Not being patronising, but trying to talk at the right level in an appropriate ‘voice’.

And the strange effect of this is that often you are more able to communicate Gospel truths to the adults who are present, because you are letting go of all the stuff that gets in the way. You are following the KISS rule, without realising it: ‘Keep It Simple Stupid!’

This is usually an unintended effect – reaching the adults through the children. But sometimes I have quite consciously said something to the children in simple, unadorned, unnuanced language, with the specific intention of speaking a hard truth to the adults, or a truth that would be harder to express in the context of ordinary adult discourse.

Gillian Wearing brought this ‘inner child honesty’ to the fore with her 1992-93 series that was called “Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say”. You can see a slideshow of her own selection of photos here. And you can see a wonderful selection of ‘sign photos’ here, sent in by Guardian readers and selected by Gillian Wearing herself.

I’m not suggesting the world would be a better place if everyone bared their soul to the first stranger they met each morning, or that some kind of therapeutic nirvana can necessarily be found in heartfelt self-disclosure. I’m just reflecting on how we can often be too complicated, too eloquent; and how a medium like a graphic novel or a children’s sermon can allow us to release a hidden voice that can sometimes touch others and communicate something important.

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[I gave this homily on Saturday at the First Profession of Sister Mary Benedicta Chinwe Obiora, in the chapel of the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph, Lymington.]

Most of us here today are guests of the community. I just want to say to Sister Mary Benedicta and to all the community how happy we are to be here with you, and how grateful we are for the chance to witness this profound step you are taking.

We know what an incredible journey this has been for you – to arrive at this day of your First Profession. A geographical journey, from Nigeria to London, and from London to the New Forest, with one or two detours in between. A journey of faith, coming to know the Lord better, drawing closer to him. And above all it has been a journey of vocation, trying to listen to God’s call – his personal call to you, speaking to your heart, and speaking through so many people and events.

Abraham only had to travel a few hundred miles when he heard the call of the Lord, from Haran to the Holy Land. You have travelled many thousands of miles. But then he was travelling on a camel, not a 747; so we should give him some credit [Genesis 12].

A vocation to religious life is a mysterious thing. It’s full of paradoxes, of apparent contradictions. The Scripture readings of the Mass help us to understand them in the right way.

On the one hand, a religious vocation is always an unexpected call. It comes as a surprise. It startles and even shocks us. It’s not something we plan.

At the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary quite unexpectedly: ‘Hail, O highly favoured one. The Lord is with you’ [Luke 1:28]. That’s why she was so disturbed. She wasn’t sitting there on the edge of her seat, tapping her watch, thinking ‘When is he going to arrive then?’

This is why, in Mediaeval and Renaissance paintings, Mary is always doing something when the Angel comes: praying, reading, sewing, etc. One of my favourite modern images of the Annunciation depicts Mary hanging out the washing on a blustery afternoon, and the angel almost swoops down between the sheets – to her utter astonishment.

So a vocation is an unexpected call.

On the other hand, a religious vocation is a dream that lies hidden within the heart, because God always calls us to be the person that we long to be, the person we are made to be – even if we don’t quite realise or acknowledge it at the time. It’s his heart speaking to our heart.

This was the phrase of St Francis de Sales, which as we know became the motto of Blessed John Henry Newman: Heart speaks unto heart.

So you are listening to the call of God, and at the same time listening to its echo in your own heart: Who am I? What does God want of me? What do I really seek for myself? Ultimately, they will come together, if we keep listening and keep following.

Another paradox is to do with relationships. On the one hand, we seem to lose so much, to be going further and further away from those we love. This was part of Abraham’s experience, put so starkly in the command that God gave him: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ [Genesis 12:1].

And this is part of Sister Benedicta’s experience. To leave one’s family, one’s home, one’s country; to leave one’s work, one’s parish, one’s set of friends and companions. It’s hard.

But in the Letter to the Romans today, St Paul explains something very important about the spiritual journey. That the closer we come to Christ, the closer we come to others – even if we are separated by a great distance. And the more faithfully we live our own personal vocation, the more connected we will be in Christ’s body, which is the Church.

‘For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness’ [Romans 12:4-8].

We have different gifts, different vocations; but we are all united in the one body. Of course, at the emotional level, we miss people; we wish we could be with them, talking, touching. But at the deepest level of faith, of charity, never forget how close you are to those you love. There is no separation in Christ; and in a mysterious way, your vocation brings you closer to your family and friends, because you are rooted more firmly in the love that binds you together.

A final paradox is about obedience. You are certainly making a lot of promises today! I’ve read the Profession. You promise obedience to God, to Blessed Mary, to Blessed Dominic, to the Prioress, to her successors, to the Master of the Order of Preachers, according to the Rule of Blessed Augustine and the Constitutions of your Congregation. Lots of obeying! Plenty of people to listen to! You seem to be losing so much freedom.

But this isn’t really true. First, you are making this profession freely, you are embracing this life freely; just as Mary said Yes to the angel with absolute freedom.

And secondly, you are making this profession in order to have a deeper experience of the freedom that comes through religious life, and specifically through the life of the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph. You believe that there is something important for you here: the prayer, the love and example of your sisters, the apostolate, the way of St Dominic and St Catherine. You have discovered an inner freedom here, and you want to enter into it more fully.

It’s not a lifelong commitment, but it is nevertheless, for this important period in your life, a wholehearted commitment; so that you can experience with your whole heart, without reservation, the life of this community and this vocation.

When he called Abraham, God promised to bless him and to bless others through him. He makes that same promise to you today.

[Click here if you want to find out more about the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph]

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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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You have probably seen plenty of ‘word-clouds’ before. But just in case you haven’t yet discovered the addictive Wordle website, here it is: http://www.wordle.net/  You go to the ‘create’ page, paste some text into the box, and out comes your own cloud. The programme analyses your text, counts the number of times you use any word, takes out the ordinary words that everyone uses (‘the’, ‘and’, ‘but’, etc.), and then makes the size of the word in the cloud dependent on the number of times you have used it relative to the other words. So you can see in a flash what thoughts are coming up again and again, what ideas obsess you, and what verbal ticks you have picked up.

I’ve been blogging for just over two months now, so I copied the text from all my posts into Wordle (15,881 words so far!), and this is what came out. I’m not sure what to make of my own thoughts:

Untitled-1 copy from http://www.wordle.net/

It’s a poor person’s form of psychoanalysis: You just speak, or write, and the computer tells you what is really in your heart – or at least what buzzes around in your head. Or you could just be lying…

You can then spend hours pressing the ‘randomize’ button, which gives you a new cloud with the same words:

Untitled-2

Or you can manually adjust the settings and choose your own font, colours, alignment, etc.:

Untitled-3 copy by http://www.wordle.net/

Try it yourself – with those poems you wrote as a teenager, with that half-finished novel under your bed, or simply with the last few emails you have sent. You can also paste in a web address and have it analyse the text on that webpage.

Hours of fun, and wasted time, together with a tiny gain in self-knowledge.

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