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

A glimpse of the congregation before Mass

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

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

Keeping vigil during the night before the Exposed Blessed Sacrament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Yes, there has been a lot of noise over the last few days. I went down to the river on Sunday afternoon, and it was ten people deep on the Chelsea Embankment; I just managed to see the royal party by standing on tip-toe, and quite a few people around me couldn’t see a thing. And walking through Victoria on Monday evening, quite by chance, I caught the post-concert fireworks just a few hundred yards away.

But my abiding sensory memory of the weekend was the early morning silence on Sunday. Battersea Bridge was closed for the flotilla, which meant that our street – which runs down to the Embankment – was also closed to traffic. It was eerie, waking up to silence. No buses, no cars, no sirens. It was as if London itself had been suspended, as I lay on my bed taking in the unusual atmosphere; as if there was less – less noise, less activity; but also more – more presence, more awareness of the place itself and not just what’s happening within it. This is what Sundays used to be like!

#76 - empty streets  by cliff_r

No, this isn’t London! Midtown Manhattan after Hurricane Irene hit the city

I’ve experienced this twice before here in Chelsea. Once was a glorious period of a few months when Battersea Bridge was completely closed for repairs after a boat crashed into one of the arches at high tide. Every morning had this same quality – as if we were living in a cul-de-sac. The other time was during the ash cloud when all the Heathrow flights were cancelled, and the very early mornings – 5 or 6 o’clock – even though I’m not up then – weren’t tarnished by the subconsciously-heard roar of planes overhead.

Another random connection: A Jesuit friend of mine telling me recently that in his community they agreed to completely disconnect the WiFi for one day each month. You might say this isn’t too radical, and perhaps once a week would really hurt. But once a month is better than not at all. And they seem to have appreciated it. Rather than being a burden, it seems to have been a liberation – you simply can’t attend to the emails – they are not ‘there’; sure – they are somewhere, but not there, now, in your computer.

We need a completely car-less day in London once a year. Does anyone know about this? There must be some kind of movement dedicated to this – a campaigning group, or a philosophy/cult – that proposes closing every road within the M25, or at least within the North and South Circular, for 24 hours. To pedestrianise the whole city just for a day. Wouldn’t that be amazing? It could be national street party day, and it could be combined with a bunch of other days that already take place, that would benefit from the no-traffic day, like the Open Gardens day. Let me know any links you know to such a proposal (I just haven’t bothered to look myself yet); and if there isn’t such a proposal, I might start a petition or another Facebook event/group. Does Paris already have an empty street day or something?

Later addition: Two wonderful comments that deserve copying into the main post here. One from David:

This is on a par with Down With Telly Zappers – never mind the elderly and the not so elderly but bed- or chair-bound for whom a  zapper is a god-send. Closing down transport in London may be a bonus for some, but it would be a day’s misery for people on minimum wage or paid by the day. And what about  tourists and all the people who depend on them for a living?

The other from Ttony, whose astonishing memory for 1970s Punch articles, or his clever search techniques, unearthed this:

I don’t know whether there is a campaign today, but this is what Cliff Michelmore wrote in Punch somewhere around 1971-73.

“THAT did it. I know my dream holiday. Not for me the wine dark sea, burning sands and browning bodies, the counting of calories and minks. I shall dream.

By noon on Friday next, all vehicles (except bicycles) will be removed from the precincts of London and taken at least forty miles from Charing Cross and are not to return until noon the following Monday. All aircraft are forbidden to fly within sixty miles of the aforesaid Charing Cross and no chimney has permission to smoke within the same area. There shall be no television or radio transmissions nor shall there be any newspapers, magazines or other such matter published. No cinema shall show any film other than one having a U certificate. All employees of and owners of joints, strip, gambling, clip, bingo etc. to take the weekend off.

All public buildings, including Royal palaces, Government offices to be open to the public free of charge, and at all times throughout the weekend. It is the intention of my dream Government to allow families to see London as it should be, to take a long parting glance at it before the whole lot goes up in blocks, to walk the streets without fear of being knocked senseless by senseless drivers, and to breathe air without fear of being choked to death.

That is my dream holiday, with the family, just drifting around London. I have no great love of London, in truth I find it as comfortable and warming as a damp overcoat, but this weekend of standing and staring and drifting may just halt our idiot rush to nowhere.

And back to the dream for a moment. We have already booked Sir John Betjeman as our guide and companion for the weekend – so hands off!”

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We had a week of silent retreat at the end of last month. Silence, of course, doesn’t mean silence; it means no talking. During meals it meant the clatter of cutlery and the slurping of coffee at breakfast, a selection of classical music at supper, and someone reading to us over lunch – in the monastic tradition.

A pulpit in the refectory of a Carmelite friary in Malta, where a friar would read to the community during meals

It’s very rare, as an adult, that you just sit back (or hunch forward over your lunch) and have someone read to you. One part of the mind is concentrating on the words, and enjoying the language and thoughts and stories. Another part is able to be more attentive than usual to the surroundings, to the senses – the taste of the food, the sheer physical presence of the person opposite you, the sounds of the room and the world outside. And another part of the mind, or perhaps the heart, falls into a semi-conscious slumber, like when you are sitting on the back seat of the car as a child, gazing out the window, as your parents talk about important things you only vaguely understand.

And the soul, somehow, at least in the context of a retreat like this, can be liberated into a kind of domestic contemplation, a stillness that you carry from the chapel into the dining room, that isn’t disturbed by the need to chat over lunch.

It reminds me of the film The Reader (I haven’t read the original novel), where the central part of their complicated relationship is her request to be read to (I won’t give any plot away!). And one of the parents who helped me with the parents booklet gave this simple advice:

Encourage your children to read. Go to the library with them. And continue to read aloud to them, even if they can read well themselves. It gives you an opportunity to talk and learn and grow together. You can usually find a book to read to children of different ages, so your children can be together in this way now and then.

So it’s good to be read to now and then!

Do you have any moments, as an adult, when someone reads to you, or when you are in a group that is being read to? I think it’s quite rare, but I might be wrong.

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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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One of our Lenten ‘disciplines’ in the seminary is to eat Thursday lunch in silence. What this means in practice is: no talking; a spiritual book is read for about 15 minutes; and whenever the particular chapter is finished we spend the rest of the time listening to the ambient noises in the dining room.

I’m certainly not the first to write about this, but you do notice a lot of things when the noise of chatter dies down. The sound of cutlery on crockery, of the boiler in the basement, of chopping in the kitchen next door. The detailing around you: the grain in the wooden table, the words ‘stainless steel’ stamped into some (but not all) of the knives. Time itself changes. I’d never realised how long, in the silence, it can take someone to eat just half an apple.

Tenderly touch - Un delicado contacto - Zärtliche Berührung by alles-schlumpf.

People, above all, are transformed. In a strange way you can be more present, not less, to another person in silence. Words can sometimes become an unintentional smokescreen to meeting another, and the sheer physical reality of the human being (and even their inner life) can be appreciated in a new way. Yes, words can reveal a person; but a person is more than their words — and that’s easy to forget.

The book we are using, by the way, is The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Everyday Wisdom from the Lives of the Saints by Robert Ellsberg — which I highly recommend for personal reading.

Here’s a preview from the Macmillan website:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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