Monday, 29 June 2009

Vision of Loveliness

“A vision of loveliness, dressed in Chantilly lace.” Thus the local newspaper described all the brides who graced the church where I was parish priest…no matter their size or shape, no matter…. whatever… invariably Visions of Loveliness…invariably dressed in Chantilly Lace.
My dictionary informs me that Chantilly is a town near Paris renowned for producing a delicate kind of bobbin lace. I wonder if you are still following me and if you are bewildered about where I am coming from and where I am going to.

Anyway, among the laced lovelies who plighted their troth in my presence there was one who will always have a special place in any memoirs of my priesthood that I may compose. The floral decoration of the church was superb and the singing of the choir did justice to the occasion. As for that most over-looked participant at any wedding – the groom – he had the aspect of a rather bewildered sheep, not, I would like to think, so much contemplating the slaughter he was soon to undergo but rather assessing the pastures he was hoping to enjoy.

I dare to boast that all went smoothly, even to perfection.

And so to the reception. Of course, first came the photo-session; then the speeches and toasts…those grandiloquent utterances of wisdom from those who would have made a better show in life if only they had followed their own advice. Such is the convention. Let it pass.

Now, at some weddings it happens that after the formalities the bride disappears with her ladies-in-waiting. She is going to change from the constricting wedding dress into something more casual, more comfortable. This would not merit comment, and most certainly not from a gentleman, and certainly not from an aged clergyman such as myself, were it not for the fact that this clothing transformation was of exceptional, no, of unique interest. Sensational!

I would be amazed if the like of this had ever occurred before. You see, this bride of outstanding beauty had had her hair arranged in a kind of bee-hive, held in place by a silver circlet. As her long, dark, tresses were being freed the ministering maidens leaped backwards with a startled scream. While her hair was being combed, out tumbled a large centipede…itself more than a little scared by the shrieking ladies and their ‘carryings-on.’

No-one more startled than the bride. When she had recovered from reflecting on the sting she had been spared she was able to recall feeling a certain prickling sensation on her scalp from the moment she left the beautician who had fixed her hair. This she put this down to her hair having been pulled too tightly!

You must be wondering how on earth I’m going to find MY WAY, GOD’S WAY in all this melee. I most certainly ask myself. By thanking God – that’s it; thanking him for bringing this bee-hive-bride into my priesthood; even thanking him that I am now almost bald! No fear that my scalp will ever provide shelter for centipedes or any other creepy crawlies! The years have been serious, indeed. I thank God with all my heart for these crazy moments! I doubt, however, if the bride would have been quite so grateful!

Peter Clarke O.P.

Next week Peter will be 'Driven to Distraction'

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Meeting God in a Hospital Ward

"I'm sure being a hospital patient will help you in your work as a hospital chaplain." Those were a friend's words of comfort as he tried to help me to make the best of what was a very distressing time. Hopefully he was right. But after being a patient several times I've discovered that a hospital is a rigorous school and the lessons we learn there may not be the ones we would expect or welcome.

The most general lesson is what it's like to be weak and vulnerable to illness, dependent upon others for even our most basic needs. We do tend to take our strength so much for granted -until we become unable to do anything for ourselves. Illness involves a loss of freedom and privacy. We hate having to ask for assistance -it's humiliating and we feel a nuisance.

And in hospital time does drag. There's the stress and fear of waiting for the results of tests. The imagination can run wild. And until we've been diagnosed we can't be treated. Nor can we come to terms with our medical problem until it has been defined. During this period I had to try to place myself in God's hands and accept whatever he asked of me. I soon learnt that such trust is very difficult, and the hardest of prayers is to say, "Thy will be done" -and really mean it.

Long inactivity can make life seem very empty. Friends have envied my having nothing to do, when I have longed to be able to do something, anything. They've told me I've got plenty of time to pray. But strangely, God can seem so distant when we are in special need of his support and long to feel him close. Prayer can be very difficult. And being a member of a religious Order and a priest I felt guilty about not being able to pray -that is, until I gradually learnt not to expect too much of myself. Paul tells us that when we can't put our prayers into words the Spirit inspires our groans and knows what they mean. In fact a groan can be far more eloquent than many words. Long before ecumenism became respectable my uncle Harold -a Methodist minister -visited me in hospital. He told me not to worry if I couldn't pray. He assured me that not only was the whole Church praying for me, but it was also doing my praying for me. It was a great comfort to know that I had the support of the prayers of every Christian.

It came as a shock to realize that I didn't cope with illness as well as I expected. At times I was afraid and confused, overwhelmed with questions about suffering, and yet didn't have the mental strength to attempt to answer them. As a member of a religious Order and as a priest I had spent years reflecting on the problem of suffering. And yet, when I became ill the standard answers didn't ring true, even though I knew they were. But I was in no condition to take them in. I resented healthy people who told me what I already believed, but found so hard to accept. I hope when I visit the sick I will have the sense not to choke the poor patient with theology when what he most needs is a friend to be with him, to hold his hand and to pray with him -a friend who knows when to keep silent.

And I have needed a spiritual kick in the pants from a good priest friend. He needed to tell me to stop thinking I was stronger than Christ in Gethsemane, or nailed to the cross, wondering why his heavenly Father had forsaken him. If Christ could weep, who was I to be ashamed of being afraid and of feeling despair? I had to learn to accept that I was human, and that that meant being emotionally and physically weak and vulnerable. And without really understanding how, I could identify with the suffering Christ, and he with me.

Those who cared for me in hospital helped me to overcome the indignities of sickness. The nurses and doctors reflected and continued Christ's compassion for the sick. And the respect they showed me helped me to retain my own self respect, when my morale was low. In them I met Christ, the Good Physician. And there was a real healing in the humour and compassion we patients showed each other. I also met Christ in the friends who came to visit me, and especially in the priests who brought Christ to me in a unique way in Holy Communion, and gave me the Sacrament of the Sick. I have seen and experienced the peace and strength this sacrament can bring to those who are very ill.

If I met the compassionate Christ in those who helped and supported me in so many different ways, I also found him in my fellow patients. The crucified Christ identified with us in our weakness and suffering, and we could identify with him. From the crucified Christ I learnt that the Son of God was most powerful when he seemed to be utterly helpless. That's when he saved the world from the power of sin and death. As I lay in my hospital bed I recalled the words of Isaiah, "In stillness and rest is your strength." And one of the psalms urges us, "Be still and know that I am God, supreme among the nations" -and therefore in control, when my life seemed to be descending into total chaos, and I couldn't understand what was happening to me, and why. To identify with the suffering Christ is a very demanding vocation and it's difficult to understand that in a mysterious way we can share in Christ's work of salvation. We find it hard to see how our sufferings can benefit us personally, let alone anyone else.

I needed to be reduced to helpless inactivity before I could learn to place my hope in God's strength rather than my own -to accept his wisdom and love, when I couldn't understand what was happening to me. We all want to be in control of our lives and are reluctant to say, "Into your hands I commend my life."

Sickness does change our perspective as to what is really important in life. When, for example, we struggle for breath or are in great pain we stop worrying about the trivial irritants of life. Then we wonder why we used to make such a fuss about things that don't really matter. And if we're facing the possibility of death, the only thing that matters is eternal life.

Not that any of these insights came as a blinding revelation. It was a case of much later realising that Christ had been with me, supporting me, even though, at times I didn't appreciate it. Hopefully I will remember this, if ever I have to return to hospital. Then, in the lonely watches of the night and of the day, in the frustration of weakness and pain, I hope I will recall the words of Jacob, "Surely the Lord is in this place -and I did not know it! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven," (Gen. 28. 16-18). For me that place was a hospital ward.

Isidore O.P.

Next week will meet God in 'A Vision of Loveliness.'

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Meeting God on my Bird Perch

Many of us delight in seeing the birds in our gardens. Sometimes they fly into the house. In the W. Indies I was fascinated by the brightly coloured humming birds, beating their wings so rapidly. And as I raised my eyes I was struck by the grace of the gliding chicken hawks.

In England I used to work at Spode Conference Centre in Staffordshire. That was in the countryside. My room was on the second floor, and overlooked fields, and beyond them, woodland. To attract the birds I made a perch, which I attached to my windowsill. On this I placed scraps from our meals.

To my delight birds started to visit my perch. At first the common, bolder ones –sparrows, robins and various kinds of tits. As they grew in confidence some would fly into my room, settle on my table and then fly out. But, to my great excitement, male and female greater spotted woodpeckers, as well as nuthatches, would occasionally come for food. My neighbour, a fellow Dominican even had a kestrel visit his table. There was great rivalry between us, as to who could attract the most exotic bird. But they were all beautiful to watch, and I spent far too long doing so!

But watching these feathered visitors taught me several important lessons about how I should react to the physical world in which we all live. I could frankly admire its beauty and goodness. I could and should thank and praise God, the creator of heaven and earth. Each of his creatures reflects something of his glory, simply by being itself.

But then I began to reflect on the freedom of the birds. They could come and go, each living its own special kind of life, without being restricted by me. And I could enjoy seeing them without needing to possess them in a cage. I could have had a caged bird, which I could see and hear whenever I wanted. That does provide a cheerful kind of companionship for some people, which I do not despise.

But I would have lost the element of joy and surprise at wild birds coming unexpectedly to feed on my table. And their being caged would not only have restricted their freedom, but mine. I would have needed to make provision for their care in my absence. But I did not own the birds, nor they me. While benefiting from coming together we preserved our independence. They could spread their wings and fly away, and I could go about my own business. A good arrangement!

This tells me something about the meaning of being poor in spirit and what should be our attitude to the material, physical things of this world. Certainly we should appreciate their beauty and goodness. That is true of people’s physical beauty. It’s not a sin to recognise that. And we can welcome good food and drink. As we do so, we should thank God for these gifts, which all add to the joy of life.

But this can get out of proportion when we become obsessed and possessed by the physical world. When we want to amass possessions, many of which we don’t need. They can so easily take over our lives. We give them an attention and importance they don’t deserve. That limits our freedom to focus our minds and hearts on God, who alone can satisfy our deepest longings for goodness and beauty.

I’m grateful to the birds, which visited my table. They revealed to me something of the glory of God, shown in his creatures, and helped me to enjoy it without becoming obsessed or possessed by it. I discovered that freedom by allowing the birds to be free.

Isidore O.P.

Next week Isidore will meet God in a hospital ward.

Meeting God in 'Ordinary Time'

“ Any single day that is lived with God and for God is far from ordinary”

The conversation goes like this: “What have you been doing all day?” The reply, “Nothing very special. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

And so we think of what is ordinary as being routine, rather dull, scarcely worth mentioning; not the sort of thing that will be remembered. The highlights of our lives are celebrations, outings, the unexpected visits of welcome friends. Also those moments of high drama – sudden and serious sickness, even bereavement when people are thrown into emotional turmoil. Such events break the regular flow of our lives.

These days we are working our way through Ordinary Time in the Church’s Liturgical Cycle. Ordinary Time fills the bulk of the year. Now past are the high seasons of Advent and Christmastide, of Lent and Eastertide. After this we settle down to the gentler pace of Ordinary Time.

In fact, this time is far from insignificant. Still less dull and boring, scarcely meriting our attention. In the Scripture texts of the Mass and of Office of Readings of the Prayer of the Church we are presented with the bedrock of our Faith: above all, the public ministry of Jesus Christ; the unfolding of Salvation History; the spirituality of responding to the Word of God, the love of God. A rich diet, indeed.

This is the staple diet, the normal nourishment for us ordinary folk leading our ordinary lives. Ordinary Time is not the season for exceptional gestures of devotion and outstanding fervour. The Church does not raise us to such a pitch. While the tempo is slower, the reach can be profound.

This is a time for consolidating our Faith, of bringing it to bear on the humdrum flow of our lives. If we can accept this, then what seems nothing very special becomes very special; what is nothing out of the ordinary becomes quite extraordinary.

This is because in our everyday lives we are in continuous dialogue with the Word of God – as it concerns our family life, our national life, our relating to our neighbours and people in the work-place. Even the nature of our recreation and entertainment is shaped by the Word of God.

In this way our personal identity, and that of the community is established – a pattern of godliness or ungodliness. In the ordinariness of life we reveal whether we see our Christianity as relevant and motivating for us or marginal and insignificant.

Make no mistake about it, any single day that is lived with God and for God is far from ordinary. It may not be newsworthy or memorable, but it is indeed, spectacular. Contrast this with the day in which God is given no place and you will feel a marked difference.
Ordinary Time is everyday time – God’s time with us; our time with God. Very, very special.

Peter Clarke O.P.

Next week Isidore will meet God on his bird perch.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

In a Piece of Cake

Here was I, filled with devotion, bringing Holy Communion to a senior citizen. His immediate greeting… “I’m tired of telling you, what is best for me is a nice rich cake!”

This was hardly the time to remind him of the words of Jesus, “Seek first the kingdom of Heaven and all the rest will be added to you.” This was not the occasion for me to embark on an explanation of the relative values of Holy Communion and a tasty home-made cake. His heart and mind were not up to that kind of talk. They were cake-centred.

So my ancient friend set me off on a train of thought. All sorts of things grab our attention and for the moment become the priorities of our lives. There are those of us who have been totally absorbed in an exciting Cricket Match. Others, in their hundreds, have had an exam fixation. The thoughts of some are in a turmoil, night and day, because of strife in their homes. Less traumatically, but still vividly, this aged gentleman was day-dreaming about the delights of a rich cake.

For the time being, this was where each of these people was at. It does not define their spirituality. Probably not one of them would have relegated God to the second or bottom in the league of their concerns. Not one of us, however, will be always thinking of God, and only God. This does not have to mean that we ever actually exclude Him from our lives. He can be securely in the background, ever present and from time to time we make him the immediate focus of our attention.

I reflect that we meet people as they are going about their business, in their moments of relaxation and in their times of deep concern. We meet them with our own preoccupations and them with theirs – I, intent on my Eucharistic Ministry, my friend with nothing on his own mind, but a nice rich cake. Our thoughts do not instantaneously mesh together. It may seem that we are moving in different worlds.

Not really different worlds, but one world, God’s world, our world. This is the world that God made and loves. He loves us as we plunge into all kinds of activities, as we set our hearts on things great and small. God is satisfied if we live in an environment that is confident of His abiding presence and if from time to time we put all else aside to turn to Him.

As I pursue this line of thought I find that I am giving significance to the ordinary things in the ordinary lives we lead. Now we have these sayings, “I know where you are coming from,” and “I understand where you are at now.” But do we actually care about this? Are we interested in what interests other people? At the very time they have this over-riding preoccupation of theirs?

I am disturbed as I ask myself whether I trivialise the concerns of others. Do I attempt to switch their immediate attention to what is on my mind, brushing aside what is important to them in favour of what is important to me?

Now I find that I am to reach God, my way, by recognising Him in other people, precisely where they are presently at, not where I am at. In other words, I am to respect the humanity that God has given them. I am to enter into their worlds, which God inhabits as much as He inhabits my world.

Thank you, old fellow, for letting me know that you were thinking that the best thing for you would be a nice rich cake. I am sure it would do me no harm either.

Peter Clarke O.P.

Next week Peter will meet God in ‘Ordinary Time.’

Friday, 5 June 2009

Finding a Bargain

I’m a sucker for a bargain. Sales, Charity Shops, Second Hand Book Shops, Church Fund-raisers fascinate me. I can’t wait to get my hands on a Bargain Stall catalogue. My shrewdness is on trial. Can I tell the difference between treasure and trash?

Could it be there is something of the bargain-hunter in most of us? It feels good when a minimum out-put has yielded a maximum in-take. Some of my most treasured possessions are bargains I have acquired over the years – for me it is useful books found in second-hand stores. The fact that they are bargains has increased their value to me. I could never have afforded to pay their retail price.

This leads me to reflect that God offers to me the greatest of all bargains – eternal, unimaginable happiness with Him in heaven. The price, that I should accept Him as my Lord and live according to His will. Eternity following upon the relatively short life-span of no more than a hundred years in His service. What God asks of me is not a life of drudgery and frustration. Far from it! Did not Jesus say that He had come that we might have life to the full, life, which is a loving response to His infinite love for us?

Satan, the father of lies, suggests to us the great deception – God’s offer is fraudulent. Satan would want us to think that we are being conned into submission to God. His line is that the price we would have to pay is not worth what we would get for it. God is not in the business of offering bargains. Satan would want to convince us that it is better to hang on to what we have of our own rather than look to what we might get from God.

It is the supernatural gift of faith that has made me into a shrewd bargain-hunter – much like the man who finds a treasure buried in a field or the one who comes across a magnificent pearl. Both find it worthwhile to stake all they have in order that they may possess what they desperately want.

Our Lord Himself raises the question, “What will anyone gain by winning the whole world and forfeiting his life? For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels and then will reward each one according to his behaviour”, (Matt 16.26)

This is the greatest sales-pitch ever! It renders meaningless the old adage, “You get what you pay for.” Pay little, expect little.

My Bargain Store Catalogue has put me in line for reaching God…my way. Life with Him, even now, and forever, comes at a bargain price. My very self, my immediate and eternal future are to be pledged in the faith-decision that I have freely chosen to make.

No gambler has ever played for higher stakes. No gambler has ever had my kind of absolute certainty that this is the right thing, the only thing, for me to do. But then, I am no gambler. I am a believer who reaches God by my putting complete trust in Him without the slightest fear that I may be mistaken.

Quite literally God offers to me eternal life, not at a bargain price, but at a give-away price. I would be a fool not to grasp it.

Peter Clarke O.P.

Next week Peter will meet God through a piece of cake.

Monday, 1 June 2009


We have defied God and have rejected his love and his life.

Why do we rebel against God and treat each other so badly? We wouldn’t do so unless we were convinced we had something to gain. In the account of the Fall Adam and Eve sought to be equal to God and independent of him. In spite of his warning, they thought they had nothing to lose by disobeying him. Pride in thinking we know better than God lies at the heart of all sin.

Sadly, we discover that our rebellion brings discord into our relationship with God, with each other and even with our environment. That was the experience of Adam and Eve, who instead of walking with God in the cool of the evening were unable to face him or even themselves in their naked humanity. They quarrelled with each other, and the very environment which God had entrusted to their care became arduousand hostile. Far from gaining by sinning they had forfeited what was most precious to them.

In the subsequent chapters of Genesis and the rest of the Bible we see the ripple effect of evil spreading throughout the world. We are very aware of that in our own lives and in the world in which we live. Our behaviour effects other people, for better or worse. We use others to our own advantage, forgetting that they are our brothers and sisters, with the same dignity and rights as we claim for ourselves.

But instead of writing us off as worthless, God sets about repairing the damage our sins have caused. This is suggested by his open hands in the present picture, and will be developed in the subsequent illustrations. They form a brief approach to salvation history.

This is suggested in this picture.

While the man shakes his fist defiantly against God, The woman gives Yahweh the contemptuous ‘V’ sign. Both of them are starting to turn away from him. Even though sinful man has rejected Yahweh’s loving hands, they remain open, ever eager to welcome us back. God’s love is of its very nature steadfast, not fickle or brittle. That means that he owes it to himself to be merciful in welcoming sinners back, if that’s what we really want.

‘If we are faithless, he remains faithful -for he cannot deny himself.’
2 Tim. 2. 13